Lowy Institute

Richard McGregor: The war within the war on COVID-19

Richard McGregor is an internationally recognized expert on the Chinese political system and a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

McGregor’s book, The Party, on the inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party is considered the pre-eminent text for understanding the CCP and was called a “masterpiece” by The Economist and a must read” by the Washington Post.

A former Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Beijing and Washington D.C., Richard has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. He is also a regular commentator on the ABC, CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the world, including the escalated US-China rivalry and who is winning, how Xi Jinping is using the crisis to his advantage, how fake news is making the problems worse in the west, how democracies are struggling under the weight of the challenge and losing soft power, the pivotal battle underway in the pacific and why its critical we engage the Chinese diaspora in western values.

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Welcome to Diplomates I’m your host, Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Richard McGregor. Richard, are you there?

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Thanks for joining us. Of course, we’re doing this live from both of our socially distant bunkers, vice the beauty of Skype, which everyone’s now very acquainted with over the last couple of weeks working from home, those who are. But thanks for joining us and obviously your expertise is in foreign policy and in particular the Chinese communist party. But given we had been talking about all things COVID, I thought an interesting place to start. You’re an expert in the CCP and you’ve written a book about the workings of the party. What does the handling of the virus tell us about the way the party does or does not function? And how did that impact on the, I suppose early stages of the outbreak in the Wuhan province.

Richard McGregor:

Well let me start at what might sound like an old place. But there’s a phrase in the US politics, it’s called the permanent campaign and that comes from the late 60s when politics basically got out of the old ways and old boroughs and things like that. Got into the hands of professionals and politics became a permanent occupation. Parties were running for election permanently in many respects. And I think that’s a good way to explain how the communist party in China works. And it’s one reason by the way, that why Western countries struggle to keep up with it. They are like a political organization running for election 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. And so they’ve got remarkable skills and faults. We’ll come back to that as a result of that. So look at the COVID crisis is a bit of a classic case.

Richard McGregor:

The start of this, China mishandled it, however you want to put it. They lied. It was the virus in its early stage was covered up. This is not just Western propaganda, it’s all on the record in China. The outbreak and the spread of the virus would not have been nearly as bad in China and then to the rest of the world if it hadn’t been covered up in Wuhan initially. But look what happened, once they acknowledged it. They basically locked down first a city of 11 million people, Wuhan. Then they locked down a province of about 50 million people in Hubei. And after that they locked down the country.

Richard McGregor:

One of the funny things about this is, we’ve all come to know a lot of epidemiologists on TV and radio and the like, and they’ve become household names and none of them said, quarantining the source of the disease is basically a textbook way to handle it. But I guess, the textbook didn’t quite envisage quarantining about 760 million people, which was probably had the idea of a medieval village in France, but the CCP had the capacity to do it.



Richard McGregor:

Because they don’t just have a strong central government when they get their act together, they were able to exercise their power right down to every neighborhood committee and street and keep people indoors. So that’s state in genuine power state capacity. The second point on this is look how quickly they’re able to turn on a dime. We can come back to the issue about whether the latest Chinese figures are right on that, but once the Chinese got the spread of the disease under control and there were much fewer new infections.

Richard McGregor:

It is just amazing to me how quickly they turned on a dime and then their focus was outward propaganda. In other words, we want to tell the world not how we covered up the virus, but how we beat the virus. And we are now in this process now where China is running an incredible global campaign as a good global citizen to underpin public health. And you can only do that if you’ve got a political organization which is both top-heavy but flexible and fleet of foot, not bound by any law, can turn on a dime and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. So that’s what I mean by the sort of the permanent campaign.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Now that’s actually a perfect way to turn to I suppose the war within the war. I mean, we’ve got the war against the virus itself, but there’s this I suppose the contest that’s underway and it’s perhaps another front for a contest that’s already been underway between the United States and China. Do you think that this is going to be a decisive battle between the U.S and China or is this just a skirmish of a broader play? Because there’s a real big focus now in the United States about blaming China, then China is now of course putting out misinformation suggesting that the disease came from the United States military. How do you see that war within the war at the moment between two superpowers?

Richard McGregor:

Now I think just about everything is a contest between the U.S and China in many respects. There’s very little cooperation at all and it’s not just a contest between two countries, it’s a contest between two systems. Because China benchmarks itself against democracies, for its own citizens it demonizes democratic system. What’s the most important democratic system in the world? And that’s the United States which sadly at the moment it’s doing very poorly in handling this crisis. Now, as you and I know there’s many different democracies and there’s many different types of democracies.

Richard McGregor:

And many democracies in the world Taiwan, South Korea, Japan to some extent, Singapore, which we might call a guided democracy. Maybe Australia we’ll see how we go there have handled this crisis in a very different fashion and relatively speaking, touch wood successfully. Not the U.S though, so China is focused on the U.S. Both sides have stepped back a little from the rhetorical war, but it was only about two weeks ago that an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as you alluded to, started tweeting out that this virus had probably not originated in China but it had probably been bought to China by a U.S military serviceman, a woman actually.

Richard McGregor:

There’s no basis to this, it’s the product of fettered conspiracy sites, one in Canada, some in America, all around the world. And this was quite a remarkable thing for the foreign ministry to do. Now I think there’s been a split in China within the foreign ministry over these tactics. But nonetheless, the fact that an official foreign ministry spokesman was authorized to do this tells you that the system in China is hardening up against the U.S. They wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have done it five years ago but they are feeling pretty confident now and pretty involved in and pretty assertive and aggressive all under Xi Jinping. And so they are willing to take on the U.S in any form possible and that includes spreading fake news almost from the very top of the system.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I’m curious just to dig into that about this total campaign or this information war by China and the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, one of the things that I think the difficulty there is that the system tended to reward, or at least at the beginning was that misinformation or managing perceptions rather than truth. Where people in Wuhan doctors were arrested and journalists were arrested for reporting on it almost at the beginning for political reasons. I mean, is it possible do you think that China is going to be able to position itself as a savior globally, and can we really believe the narratives of the infection rates, the mortality rates out of China? And is that something that’s going to be effective for them?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah. Well the jury is still out on that. I would say not completely effective, but there might… I’d say two things. It might be more effective than we think or would like, and remember all this propaganda is also internally directed to the Chinese people themselves. The Chinese people have just gone through an absolutely brutal experience with a really tough quarantine. You think of yourself how much you might be sort of champing at the bit at the moment, after a few weeks-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

Well, right. You think of Wuhan you weren’t allowed out at all, if you were you were severely punished, people were dying all around you and like. So there’s been a lot of civil unrest in China since then at various different places, you can see it on the internet. They were for example, outside the provincial headquarters, sorry the city headquarters of party organization this week. There was a massive protest calling for rent relief, something that people in Australia are going to be sort of angst that they will be very familiar with very soon. So going back to the start as you alluded in Wuhan and the origins of this and whether that really undermines China’s claims to soft power.

Richard McGregor:

I mean, I think it does overseas but let’s see how it plays out. For example I think one of the major battlegrounds right now is Europe. We’ve got terrible situations in Spain and Italy to France and also the UK, and China has been making extremely high profile air lifts of masks and protective equipment and gowns and that sort of thing for the use of medical professionals. And this has really caused quite a stir. If you look at Macron, president Macron from France recently he’s had to make very statement saying well, “Look, we’ve given as much to other countries in Europe as China has, stop this propaganda.”

Richard McGregor:

So it might work in a superficial way at the start, but I think it really alerts the leaders of other country like Macron who’s been thinking deeply about China. That they’ve really got to wake up to themselves and just see the attention and focus of what China is doing and they have to respond. We’ve been through this same debate in Australia, so the coronavirus has been important in that respect. I should say one other thing though, that on the figures you mentioned. Look, the quarantine was brutal in China but there’s no doubt it worked to a degree. Now, is it true, as they were saying a week or two ago that there were no new cases in China? Obviously that’s not true.

Richard McGregor:

Is it true that the death rate in Wuhan was as low as they suggested a few thousand? I think there’s no doubt that under counts the death rate. But having said that, I treat the Chinese figures to a degree like I treat Chinese GDP figures. They’re not right to the decimal point, but they’re broadly right as to the trends because I think with the virus, it’s something you simply you can’t sort of cover up for good. And another way of judging it is an old thing with China, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do. Now Xi Jinping has been out and about, he was into Zhejiang yesterday the province near Shanghai. He’s been to Wuhan. There’s no way they would put Xi Jinping out in public unless they were pretty confident that they’d made massive progress in containing the virus.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. So just turning to Xi Jinping, your essay recently the backlash essay, you’ve written that Xi was under pressure internally and that perhaps China isn’t an unstoppable monolith that we sometimes perceive it to be. What to your knowledge has been the response in China by Chinese people? Are they buying the narrative from the government that things have been well handled by the Chinese Communist Party? And is this information war, you mentioned some of it’s being projected externally for soft power reasons to manipulate the global narrative, but a lot of it is for the domestic audience. How much is that of confidence as how much is that of fear in your mind?

Richard McGregor:

Yes, that’s a very good question and hard to be definitive in answering it. Before the coronavirus I had a very simple crude rule of thumb and emphasis on crude, and that was that the people, the citizenry liked Xi Jinping, the elite disliked him. Now why would I say that? Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is highly popular amongst people because that’s something that people have been angry about in China for a long time. Saying public officials get rich at their expense so bringing these people down works for him. The elite it’s a bit different. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his management of the economy, favoring the state over the private sector.

Richard McGregor:

You obviously upset a lot of powerful people with an anti-corruption campaign. Most of all I think the elite technocrats are absolutely furious with him about making himself president or leader in perpetuity, that was really the turning point. I don’t see at the moment, there’s no way at the moment Xi Jinping has his hands firmly on the levers of a power in every sector, nobody’s going to knock him off or anything that. It’s very hard to mobilize even elite opinion against him because you can’t. If you form a group to criticize him or a ginger group against him you’ll be shut down, you might be arrested and the like. Look at what’s happened in recent weeks after Wuhan.

Richard McGregor:

In the initial stages of the virus in Wuhan, we had an extraordinary display of public opinion on the internet criticizing the government, mourning the death of doctors who tried to speak out and like. Citizen journalists going around giving us fresh reports daily about what was happening on the ground. Well, that’s all stopped. The system’s got his act together, those citizen journalists are basically in detention. Other people who criticize Xi recently, most famously a big time Beijing property developer who was always a bit of a rat bag commentator but he was well-connected. He’s been detained.

Richard McGregor:

So anytime there’s any outbreak of criticism against Xi before it can take grip, before it can gain an audience at the top, before it can embolden people, he shuts it down and that’s what’s happening now. Whether the impact on Chinese people, people in China haven’t gone through a deep recession before, they probably about to go through one now. So we’ll see. The system will be tested but the propaganda system will also be working over time to convince people that they did the right thing with a lockdown. China did better than other countries, particularly America and they should stick with Xi and they should stick with the CCP.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah, that’s interesting. You sort of touched earlier on the contest between systems and that’s very much evident now. I mean, it was emerging before, but we’ve now got a full blown struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And we talked about the limitations around why the authoritarian regime might’ve led to a cover up at the beginning, but the ability to turn on a dime as you said. I mean, what is the response to the crisis tell us about democracies struggling to get the balance right between I suppose, the repression of people and rights of individuals and the suppression of the illness?

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And the other thing I think is perhaps troubling people that are in favor of democracies as I am. When you look at the United States response to some other democracies in Europe, basic competence appears to be in question here. I mean when you look at the United States, a lot of their soft power came from being the country that put the man on the moon and being the global leader. They’re certainly not stepping up in a global leadership capacity, but also in basic competence capacity there’s certain question marks there.

Richard McGregor:

Well that’s right. When you let the state wither, and when you attack the state for decades, and when you load them up with all sorts of things that the bureaucracy in America is loaded up with by Congress, you undermine the effectiveness of the state. Whatever you say about China, they’ve got enormous state capacity. They can mobilize resources, they can mobilize people, they have a extraordinary ability, logistical ability to get suppliers here or there. That sort of thing has been corroded over many years in the U.S. We could go on about that about that tribal political culture. You’ve seen a bit of sclerotic democracies in Europe as well struggling at the same time.

Richard McGregor:

And this is all grist for the Chinese mill. I mean, the context for the Chinese is, the turning point of the Chinese confidence in their system compared to America was obviously first of all in the global financial crisis in 2008. The Americans had been coming over and lecturing the Chinese about how to run a modern financial system and the like. Then of course, we had the GFC and the Chinese saw okay, thanks America no more lectures from you on how to run banks and the like, we’ll do that ourselves. After that, that was the start of Chinese hubris after that under Obama and American made a bit of a comeback. You can criticize Obama, but the economy did start to recover and that Chinese notice that.

Richard McGregor:

I think this second point of Chinese hubris was the election of Donald Trump. The Chinese have always said we’re meritocracy and look you’ve just selected as your new president, a real estate celebrity developer from New York. So thanks very much, we’ll stick with our meritocracy. Now, I think that came off again because Trump in his initial stages really destabilize the Chinese, they didn’t know how to handle him. I think they got a better grip on him as of about last year. But now I think we’re getting maybe to a third point of Chinese hubris. In other words, if America really suffers and it looks they’re going to from this virus, both economically, societally and the like.

Richard McGregor:

All the holes in the health system, all the impact on poor people and the like in U.S. The way that the rich will be able to protect themselves in the U.S and poor people won’t. Well, that’s going to be another high point of Chinese hubris and this is at a time when compared to 2008, they’re a really powerful country. Their economy 2/3 the size America’s, their military I think they’ve got a bigger Navy these days than America’s, untested obviously. So we’re getting to a point where China will feel even more assertive and they’ll feel their able to be more assertive because the U.S more so than in 2008, will be really turning inward angrily. We hope not, but that’s the direction it’s heading in.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And so just turning to you mentioned I suppose, China in the context of its military and forward projecting foreign policy. How worried should we be about the Pacific during the pandemic? I mean every country at the moment is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve gone through a big focus where we’ve done the Pacific step up because we took the view, we’d taken our eyes off the prize with our Pacific partners. And China had been doing a lot of soft power, a lot of debt diplomacy through it’s a belt and road initiative there. I mean, how worried are we generally right now about the Pacific? And should we be more worried about China’s activities there during the COVID-19 situation?

Richard McGregor:

Well, I think we’re worried about it. To be fair we are focused on it, whether we’ve got the capacity to remain competitive it remains to be seen. But let me give you one story. About three weeks ago I was actually in Papua New Guinea giving talks on China and the like and this was just when the situation was starting to turn in China, in other words they thought they were getting on top of the virus. And at that point the Chinese convened a teleconference with the entire cabinet of P and G and I think the Solomon Islands, to give them a talk about how to handle COVID-19. And I thought that was just remarkable. They were so fast, they’d barely drawn breath from battling back the virus and they’re on the front foot in this propaganda campaign.

Richard McGregor:

And it was obviously a global campaign because the Pacific Islands are important, but they’re not the biggest front for China’s global push. And there they were convening the entire cabinet and the Solomon Islands to in an exercise of what we might call soft power, teaching them about the virus. Now since then, for example Solomon Islands tests for the virus where were having to be sent to Australia. The Chinese said, “Oh, we’ll come and do them for you.” As a response to that, Australia has actually sent the Solomons their own test kits so that they can be done there. So, yeah there’s definitely a contest going on. In Port Moresby you can see Chinese construction sites everywhere, that they look just the construction sites I used to see Beijing.

Richard McGregor:

For good reason they’ve got the exact same signs outside them, the same companies, the same sort of safety signs in Chinese and bad English. And of course, Chinese workers were drawn and imported at the expense of the locals. I asked many of the Papua New Guinea friends up there why do you allow this? What about you’ve got massive underemployment in your country. And they said that well, the Chinese just insisted on it. So yeah, it’s a big contest in the Pacific and fundamental one for Australia. I think the federal government has done the right thing to focus on it. The problem with Australia I think often is we have excellent well-meaning policies, but then the execution falls away. And China isn’t going away from the Pacific so we’ve got to stick with it for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

No I think it’s absolutely critical, it’s one area hopefully that there’s bipartisan support. I mean the Pacific essentially is Australia’s geopolitical neighborhood so it’s something that we need to keep an eye on. I’m curious about your take on criticism of the CCP regime by those in the West. Clearly at the moment Donald Trump for the reasons we’ve already discussed, that Macron story but also he’s domestic political reasons he’s been calling COVID-19 coronavirus and calling it the China virus. I mean, where do you see the differences between criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, China as a nation state? What’s fair and what delves into racism? Because often you have a situation where the regime, the CCP very quickly come out and say any criticism amounts to racism. Which is clearly untrue, but where is the line there and how do we manage that when we’re looking at both our domestic politics but also geopolitically in this contest between democracy and autocracy?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, it’s a bloody hard question. In Australia, we have a very sort of racist history in Australia at the gimps, that’s obvious to anybody. We had an anti color bar in immigration till about ’65 or ’73 or however you decide to define it. Since then I think we’ve opened up remarkably and I’m sort of a glass half full on all this, but we’re being tested right now. I guess there’s two things to mention here. It’s very painful to see all the headlines in papers in Australia now about Chinese profiteers on masks and this, that and the other as though the only carpetbaggers in the world are Chinese and not of any other race or color.

Richard McGregor:

I have some sympathy for the Chinese companies in Australia, which sort of bought up all the masks and the PPE equipment in January and sent to China. Well, there was an emergency then, they’re now bringing it back here. I don’t know whether they’re price gouging or not, and if they are price gouging then something should be done about them. But it’s just seems a really easy, cheap, free kick in the tabloid and newspapers and maybe sort of you know prodded on from his sick bed by Peter Dutton. And I think we have to be really careful about that because we end up with people of Asian descent no matter where they’re from, being screamed at on the streets and the like and that’s bad all round.

Richard McGregor:

On the issue of the so called China virus, Chinese virus or Wuhan virus now look, I would never call it that and I don’t know whether it’s racist on not I mean. But I’m a little bit reluctant to allow the Chinese to play the victim card on this account. We have Japanese encephalitis, that’s what it’s called in Chinese newspapers. We had the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, We had Spanish flu, which by the way started in Kansas in America, not in Spain.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

Yes it is. It was only sort of came up and was reported in Spain. But the WHO I think because the Japanese complained about Japanese encephalitis I think tried to encourage people as of a few years ago, not to attach geographical names to diseases and fair enough. I think. But it is funny or interesting I should say, not funny. If you look at Chinese papers from say five weeks ago The Global Times, some of the headlines there talked about the Wuhan virus. And guess what? They’ve gone back in recent weeks and changed the headlines on the online stories and they are no longer calling it the Wuhan virus.

Richard McGregor:

But personally, we should speak truthfully don’t shy away from the fact about where this started and the problems of the initial cover up. That’s all fair game, but trying to use this as some sort of political cajole as U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did recently at the G7 meeting. He wouldn’t agree to a communique until the word Wuhan virus was in there and of course there wasn’t a communique as a result. I think that’s pointless and not the main game and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I mean, one of the things I think we’re grappling with here. I mean, traditionally people sending I suppose goods back to their homeland probably not an uncommon event in Australia’s history. The difference I suppose here is we’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an authoritarian regime which seeks to control its diaspora in other nations. So I mean, I’ll be curious to get your take on how worried we should be by CCP interference in Australia’s institutions, the United Works Front Department which is the propaganda wing of the CCP. How worried should we be about that when you’ve got former ASIO head saying look, “Essentially we’re being overwhelmed.” I mean, how concerned are you about things that? And then how do they play into things where you have seemingly China on a global scale, not just from Australia using its it’s diaspora networks to essentially source goods from beneath the nation states.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well once again, it’s a really difficult issue. On the issue of diaspora network sourcing goods, sometimes that can be great for trade. I mean, people have complained, I’m sitting in Sydney as I talk to you and Michelle and I listened to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the morning, the shock jocks, and they’re often complaining about the so called diagos the people who grab milk powder off the shelves here and send it back to China knowing that they’re getting a higher price. Now that’s no good price gouging but the other way of looking at it, these people have established what could be a lucrative trade for Australia.

Richard McGregor:

So instead of sort of demonizing why don’t we take them over? Why don’t we use it? Why don’t we make ourselves a base for which the Chinese would be dependent on to buy these things? So I kind of think in some respects we approach it the wrong way. Now onto your bigger point of how we handle the diaspora issue, it’s a really difficult issue. A lot of Chinese in Australia feel singled out over a lot of heavy press reporting in recent years about overseas Chinese and infiltrating the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of course.

Richard McGregor:

And not being loyal to Australia and that’s extremely hurtful thing to be told. But the truth is the problem starts in many respects in China, in the CCP with Xi Jinping because they’re very experienced at this kind of work. Saying that to these people your Chinese, your first loyalty should be to China. So how do we respond to that? It muddies the waters, it makes it very difficult for Australian institutions to manage when the CCP is quite openly targeting these people to support China. So it’s a day to day proposition and a very hard one to get right on every single day.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.




Dr Michael Fullilove: Why middle powers matter – managing China in an era of Trump.

Dr Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. An adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Rhodes Scholar and renowned foreign affairs expert, Dr Fullilove is a widely published author and a much sought after global commentator.

Misha Zelinsky up with Michael for a chinwag about how Australia should interact with a rising China under Xi Jinping,  the madness of US politics and what a second Trump term might look like, how open systems of government still have the upper hand, why the world might be one elected leader away from a new sense of calm, and why – despite everything – Michael remains an unabashed optimist about the future. Be sure to listen to Michael’s special shout out to the ‘Deep State’!



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

Michael Fullilove:          Thank you for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, pleasure’s all mine and listeners. Now, so many places to start obviously, but you’re a noted internationalist and probably a tough time to be an internationalist with global politics being as they are. There’s so many reasons to be pessimistic.

Michael Fullilove:          Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talk a lot about being pessimistic, would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist about the future of our foreign policy and the world more generally?

Michael Fullilove:          I’m an optimist by instinct and by nature. I think there’s lots of reasons to feel down at the moment because you’ve got a leader of the free world who doesn’t believe in the free world and doesn’t want to leave it. You have a West that is stepping back from its traditional role, you have non democracies up on their hind legs, you have an international organization in the UN that’s sort of unable to solve the global problems that we it tasked with solving.

Michael Fullilove:          So there are a confluence of factors that make one pessimistic, but as against that, I never underestimate the genius of humanity to get its act together and solve problems when they come into focus. And also never underestimate the role of individuals because I think structures matter, structural reason, the world changes for vast impersonal reasons, but also because of individual decisions that individual leaders make.

Michael Fullilove:          If Donald Trump, for example, I’m sure we’ll come to him later, if Donald Trump is not reelected president, if a Democrat of any stripe really is a reelected president, I think that would be a burst of adrenaline for the international system. I think a lot of the world would say, “Wow, maybe we’re getting back on track.” Maybe they’d be more impetus to solve some of these bigger global problems.

Michael Fullilove:          Similarly, if we go to the UK, I don’t think Brexit would have happened. You can’t explain Brexit without the role of one or two individuals, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. If Hillary Clinton had won the election four years ago rather than Donald Trump, then we’d probably be living in a different world. So we are at… the sort of pendulum is swinging in a bad way at the moment, but I always believe the pendulum will come back.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think though, this period that we’ve had, this 30 year period that people seem to want to hark back to around the liberal world order, is that an anomaly though? Are we just going back to the way things always have been, which is big power politics and big strategy or strategic role rather than the world harmoniously operated by one hyper power?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that it’s all to be played for. We don’t know the answer to that. It’s obvious that power politics is rushing back, and if America is considering America first, then it’s natural for other countries to do that. But I do think that the benefits that were provided by the liberal international order that existed came into being sort of after the second World War were incredible in terms of economic growth.

Michael Fullilove:          There were so many wonderful things that were achieved in that period that I’m not ready to write it off and say, “No, we’re out of the garden, went back in the jungle.” I think we can get back to the garden, it’s all to be played for. but there are a few big decision points coming up and one of them is the U.S. election.

Michael Fullilove:          I think if Donald Trump is reelected, I think it becomes much harder to maintain that garden. Suddenly the world will adapt to that, they will start to say the United States, which is in the cockpit of the world order has really changed, it’s a different country from what we thought it was, and that will have all sorts of flow on effects.

Misha Zelinsky:             Let’s talk about us politics. Politics has gone a little bit mad in United States. You heard the Iowa result, one result, we’ve had the president recently acquitted by the Senate, Republican Senate of largely partisan basis apart from Mitt Romney. What do we make of the madness of U.S. politics leaving aside global politics? And how does that flow into… Because you’ve painted the positive picture, but let’s talk about the negative picture?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s very hard for an America far like me. Bear in mind that I spent a lot of my life reading about the U.S. politics and the U.S. role in the world. I wrote a book on Franklin Roosevelt who helped to establish the international order that we see crumbling in front of us.

Michael Fullilove:          So for me to go through even just the last week or two, the incredible incompetence of the Democrats in Iowa, the sort of partisan acquittal of the president really after really atrocious behavior in relation to Ukraine. And then the state of the union, the garishness, the grotesque circus-

Misha Zelinsky:             Is almost like an Oprah Winfrey TV special.

Michael Fullilove:          And I don’t acquit the other side either. I thought-

Misha Zelinsky:             Tearing up the space?

Michael Fullilove:          … Pelosi’s bit tearing up the space. The whole thing, it feels like the country’s coming apart at the seams, doesn’t it? So look, voters of New Hampshire, we look to you to restore some order.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you’re an avowed Americanist, everyone knows that. How does the world operate without its traditional leader? Or can it operate without its traditional leader?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s hard and it’s a challenge that we have been trying to come to terms with really since the second half of the Bush administration, I would say. I think in the first administration of George W. Bush, the first term they overreached, and then in the second term they started to step back.

Michael Fullilove:          Obama for all his qualities had a much more limited view of America’s role in the world and he hoped that as America did less, other countries would do more. You remember that was the sort of the hope that in the middle East that the Europeans and someone would step up as Americans tried to lead from behind.

Michael Fullilove:          And what actually happened was that as America did less, everyone else did less too. So this is the problem, it’s hard… I think middle powers like Australia should do more with other middle powers.

Michael Fullilove:          I think we should do our best to hold the system together until the fever passes in Washington, but it’s hard because middle powers don’t make the international system great powers, super powers make the international system. The international system tends to acquire some of the features of the most important powers.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t know the answer to your question, Misha, we’re living through an experiment. I think all of us have to do what we can to hold the system together and hope that America returns to some form of normalcy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you’re absolutely right, history is governed by events that are these pivot points, Brexit, which we’ll come to, the 2016 election is perhaps one of the most classic in contemporary politics, but let’s fast… And you’ve painted a rosy picture potentially of what a democratic presidency could do for America, but the global mood so to speak, but let’s fast forward to a second term of a Trump presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:             Strikes me that much of Trump’s worst do you think have been largely contained by the institutions? May be almost struggling to the point now he’s busting out against them. Can the institutions survive a second term of Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s the big question and having just come back from the United States, it feels like we’re probably more likely than not to have to grapple with that question. Look, the glass half-full view says that as you say, “The institutions have more or less held together the free press, the U.S. civil service to some extent, the deep state [crosstalk 00:08:24]”-

Misha Zelinsky:             The national security systems.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank God for the deep state.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m going to end up with a lot of [ATMS] from some interesting people on Twitter, but anyway.

Michael Fullilove:          Bring it on, bring it on. So that’s the positive view, and of course… I’ve said to my American friends, “Don’t forget halfway through a second term, a president tends to enter the lame duck phase and event start to move on, and often the most important changes that a president brings in happen in the first term.” So that’s the glass half-full.

Michael Fullilove:          The glass half empty version says that we will have Trump unleashed, the deep state will wither away. It will be impossible to… We’ve already seen him come back at issues again and again like free trade, and alliances, and other things and this time he will overcome the resistance. I suppose we also have to think, even if he limits himself to two terms and you’d have to say based on everything you see about him, I don’t know why he would think the constitutional limitation should apply to him.

Michael Fullilove:          What happens after Trump? Does the Make America Great Again movement survive Trump? Does someone else called Trump run for president in four years time? What does that do to the democratic party? This is the fear that if you have two terms of Mr. Trump, does that really knock the country off course? And does it start to spiral away like Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter? No.

Misha Zelinsky:             He goes from being an anomaly to systemic-

Michael Fullilove:          Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … force.

Michael Fullilove:          The new normal.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right. And so that I think is an interesting question to pose. We could probably talk about Trump all day and we will return to U.S. politics in a global context. Jumping across the pond as a word to the UK, Brexit. It’s now done. One of the things that people feared was that the UK leaving Europe would be the first of a domino effect. Next would come in France after that might come Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think there’s more to come in Europe? And what’s the net impact of Brexit on Britain, but also on the European union, which is critical to the liberal world order? It’s a sleeping giant in many ways.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the good news is that Brexit has been such a shamble that no one in Europe wants to follow the Brits. And so you remember after the Brexit vote, people were talking about Frexit, and Grexit, and Spexit, and all the rest of it. But now I don’t think… I think everyone looks at that and says, “No, we don’t want that.”

Michael Fullilove:          Now, one possible wrinkle on that is Scotland where suddenly you’ve got a country in a nation in Scotland that is in a very different place on Europe and many other issues from England, so that’s a caveat. I don’t think Brexit will break up Europe, but I think what Brexit will do is first of all, it will make Britain poorer and more distracted than it would otherwise have been.

Michael Fullilove:          And as you say, we’ve historically relied on Britain to be one of the tent poles of the international order, the most internationally focused European country, the one with the greatest, with big economy and outward-looking economy, trade dependent, strong military and intelligence services, and it has been blown off course, it’s been heavily distracted for five years and it will continue to be that way.

Michael Fullilove:          I’m not a total bear when it comes to Britain’s future, I think Britain’s got a great future, but I think it’s going to be less than what it would have been if it had stayed in Europe. And to come to the other bit of your question, I think Brexit will make the EU smaller by definition, weaker, poorer, less liberal, more statist, less pro American, less willing to stand up to Russia.

Michael Fullilove:          So I think the net effect of all this is to benefit enemies of the West, adversaries of the West in the Kremlin or [Xiao Nan Hai 00:12:48] and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think a Scottish independence vote is likely? It’s interesting question, isn’t it? Because the Scots voted to stay perhaps principally because they want to stay in the EU and then their friends down South have now taken them out of EU, it’s interesting problem politically.

Michael Fullilove:          I hope it doesn’t. Look, I hope it doesn’t because all the… I just think Scotland adds so much to the United Kingdom that… My people are from Ireland and England, not from Scotland, but I just think it would be a shame for Britain as a country, but also again, it would further distract, it would be more lead in the saddles for Britain.

Michael Fullilove:          And really someone like me wants a Britain that gets over this, that does get Brexit done and gets over Brexit and comes back to playing a confident outward looking role in the world. We need that. And another extended debate about Scotland and the impoverishment of the country that would come from Scotland, exiting can only be bad news for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you mentioned the Kremlin and Russia, and clearly they had a hand in Brexit, and they had a hand in the 2016 election famously, and there’s talk that they might have a hand in the 2020 election. But I want to talk a little bit about open and closed systems because this seems to be the big trend we’re heading towards is that for a long time we had a globalization led by United States and more democracy and there’s going to be integration, et cetera.

Misha Zelinsky:             And what we now have is two worlds, one that’s characterized by a liberal openness of information, of people, of exchanged and increasing closed essentially autocratic systems. Traditional theory has been the open systems would win. Bill Clinton nailing jello to a wall, good luck with that. If you want to control the incentive, of course, it appears to be the case that the closed systems are winning and using the openness against them.

Misha Zelinsky:             Why do you think that is the case and what’s the way for democracies to guard against that without losing the closing themselves?

Michael Fullilove:          I think in the end, open systems work better, and I think to return to the metaphor of the pendulum, the last 12 months or 24 months, we’ve gone through this period of the strong men where we were worried by the rise of the strong men. But if you look at how countries like Russia and China are doing now, would you say that closed systems are working when you look at Russia’s economy, the fact that it’s in a demographic death spiral?

Michael Fullilove:          Russia has an economy not much larger than Australia’s.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, Mr. Putin plays a poor hand well, and he invests heavily in his military, in his ability to cause problems and cause mayhem elsewhere. But in terms of delivering economic growth, and happiness, and good health to the Russian people, that system is a failure. If you look at China, it’s a different story I think.

Michael Fullilove:          You have to acknowledge the success of the Chinese system in the last few decades as it opened up, but if you look at coronavirus and you look at the reporting now about how Chinese bureaucracy has refused to come clean quickly, you can see that that closed system to come to answer your question, doesn’t respond well to these shocks. An open system that is open to science and open to transparency will work better in the long run.

Michael Fullilove:          So I believe in our system and I sometimes I want to shake people in the West stop, and shake them out of their topper and say, “Don’t underestimate the system that our fathers and mothers fought for and our system is better than their system.” And I’ll tell you what, if we could elect a couple of leaders in big Western countries that would change the psychology.

Michael Fullilove:          To come back to the structural versus individual, don’t underestimate that the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States, the fact that Merkel who was so impressive for a long time is fading out of the picture, there’s not that many big Western leaders that you can look to and say that they’re really impressive.

Michael Fullilove:          Whereas as I said, say Putin seems to play weekend well, Xi Jinping is obviously sort of a world historic figure. I admire Macron in many ways, and I think if we could get a couple of other Western leaders out there that might change the psychology a little bit.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting though, isn’t it? How much do you think the crisis of confidence within the West, not just in the leadership, but almost in the system itself? You look at polling, which says, “Younger people have concerns or they don’t think democracy is the best system.”

Misha Zelinsky:             Or just generally that the West doesn’t seem to have the swagger it once did maybe in the Cold War days where literally believed in the system and self-evidently projected in that way. Do you think there’s something to that? So that may happen?

Michael Fullilove:          I do. I think that… What’s happened is first of all, the forever wars that disenfranchised a whole generation of people around the West who didn’t believe in those wars, and also who not only thought the wars were wrong, but then watched as the Wars were not won. And their system seemed unable in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to win those wars.

Michael Fullilove:          And then the global financial crisis I think was the second blow of the hammer and the ongoing effects of that’s had, inequality. I think these are the problems that these have shaken our faith in the system. Now, it’s interesting when you mention that polling.

Michael Fullilove:          The Lowy Institute polling for a number of years has found those concerning results among younger Australians that they don’t necessarily believe that democracy is the best system, but what’s interesting is that we dove deeper a couple of years ago and did qualitative polling as well to try to work out why we were getting those quite shocking results.

Michael Fullilove:          And younger Australians didn’t say that they necessarily believe that authoritarian government is better, it was more to do with disillusionment about how Australian democracy is working. So concerns that the parties were not different from each other, or the politicians were only in it for themselves, or that the system seemed to be broken.

Michael Fullilove:          I think there’s a grain of hope there. I don’t think young Australians want an authoritarian system, but they want our system to work better, and so do I. I would like to have politics in Australia and around the world that is solving the problems rather than being concerned with their own position in the hierarchy.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve spoken a couple of times about inspiring leaders. Are there any leaders that you can see on the horizon you think that man or woman is someone that get us to this place?

Michael Fullilove:          Well, I mentioned Macron. I love the audacity of Macron, I love saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             Starting a party from nowhere and just-

Michael Fullilove:          Incredible, amazing. Imagine that in the Australian context, not just becoming president under the age of 40 have a nuclear power, but shattering the old parties hold on the political system. Buttigieg is showing similar-

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, he’s interesting.

Michael Fullilove:          … audacity in a way. But I think it’s too soon to put our hopes in him. So I like Macron, I like the fact that he thinks big, he thinks about these big issues. I would also say I wouldn’t again, at the risk of getting mobbed on Twitter, I have much more time for Boris Johnson than the many people, and I think that I disagree with Boris on Brexit completely and I think Brexit was totally wrong headed for the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          But I think Boris is more of a liberal, cosmopolitan leader than many people think. I think his instincts on immigration and questions like that are much more liberal than people think. I think there’s a glimmer of hope there and just to offer a third leader if I can. For some years I’ve had an eye on Keir Starmer who seems to be the front runner at the moment to lead the labor party in the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          Starmer is someone of real… who had a distinguished career as a prosecutor, someone who’s a sort of fully formed human being with a hinterland. Very interesting guy, and I’ll tell you, if he could… To go from Corban to Starmer, that would be a big battlefield promotion, so fingers crossed.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. You’re clearly passionate about democracy and someone believes in heavily. How concerned you about this notion of political warfare and the border [Kratz] dabbling in Western democracy using social media or weaponizing institutions against Western liberal democracy? How concerned are you about that advent because it’s reasonably new, but it seems to be getting worse not better?

Michael Fullilove:          It is concerning, but here’s the good news story is that Australia has responded. The whole Australian system has responded to attempts by foreign interference, especially from the Chinese party state in the last couple of years in a way that’s very interesting. People overseas often talk about Australia as the canary in the coal mine, but I say to them, “Some canary.”

Michael Fullilove:          The problem with that is a canary has no agency, does it? It’s just a bird in a cage and it either dies or it doesn’t die. Whereas actually what Australia has done is stood up for itself, and that’s partly policy changes at a government level. It’s partly the political class on both sides coming up with a new bipartisan approach. It’s also the media.

Michael Fullilove:          There are probably half a dozen journalists in Australia whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning, but it’s the scoops that they have led, especially in the old Fairfax press actually and in the ABC, not exclusively, but especially there that has thrown light on some of the problems in the system.

Michael Fullilove:          So if you ever thought that an individual can’t make a difference in society, that’s not true because those stories forced the political class to focus on it first, forced all of us to focus on it. And now a lot of countries abroad are saying, “Okay, Australia seems to have done a few things right here.”

Michael Fullilove:          And you start with transparency and throwing some light on what other countries are trying to do, how they’re trying to get their hands in the stuff of our soul.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’re absolutely correct about the press. I think we are critical of the press and its role at times, but I think they’ve done an outstanding job in that context. Now, switching to China and the critical nature of the Chinese relationship to Australia’s future. How do you see Australia managing its relationship?

Misha Zelinsky:             Is our relationship with the U.S. central to this? Because a lot of people say, “We don’t have to choose between the economic trade relationship and our security relationship.” But increasingly those two countries are choosing at least strategic rivalry for not shifting towards some kind of cold war. What is our position within that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think on China, I think our policy is properly a mix of engaging with them battles so hedging, and it has to be an intelligent mix of those two, and you’ve got to work out when you engage and when you hedge. I think we should cooperate with China where our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests will require us to say yes to China even when the United States says no to China.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t think we should look at China always through an alliance prism. I think we should be ambitious when we see opportunities to pursue our interests. But I think when our interests diverged from China’s interests, we have to be very tough minded and very clear and consistent about why we’re doing something, we’re going in a different direction.

Michael Fullilove:          And that’s very hard to do, especially when your own politics is as fragile as ours. We’re not in the freezer with China, but we’re kind of in the bar fridge where they’re not that happy with us, and that’s fine. We’ve stood up for ourselves, but Beijing hasn’t really put the weights on us in the way that it has put the weights on the South Koreans and a couple of other countries. So it will be interesting to see how we respond if they ever do.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the other thing is to say that the U.S. matters because like most Asian countries, we want a U.S. engaged in the region because it helps to provide some balance to the force if you like to go back to the Star Wars metaphor. And it’s easier to maintain our freedom of movement and independence when there’s at least two big States in the region.

Michael Fullilove:          And the other thing that I think is important for us to think about when we think about China is not to shrink Asia to the dimensions of China. And not to forget that there are a number of other big Asian countries including Japan, and South Korea, and Indonesia and Vietnam, and others, and we need not focus on China both in positive and negative ways to the exclusion of those other countries.

Michael Fullilove:          We need to thicken those countries and have a sort of a balanced Asia relationship and not too focused on China.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because one of the things undercooked is clear relationship with India. Certainly, our relationship with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, but do you think there’s a case for deeper links between the democracies of the Asian and Southeast Asian region and working together, not necessarily as an avert way to the Chinese Communist Party, but just as a way of promoting democracy in the region?

Michael Fullilove:          Yes, I do. I think that it’s totally legitimate for democracies to get together and to work out where their interests overlap, and if we believe in our system, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying that. I would also say though that there are some countries that are not democracies but are not necessarily in the China camp as it were.

Michael Fullilove:          And it’s useful for us also to thicken our links with those countries, so yes, I think we should be… I think India is a big opportunity for us, but I’d also like us to do more with a country like Vietnam that’s certainly not a democracy, but that has different interests from China’s.

Michael Fullilove:          And the more we can thicken those connections, the more we can complicate the region, the harder it is for any one state to dominate the rest of us. And that’s what all of us want, we all want the freedom to make our own way. None of us want to live in another big State’s shadow.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a really interesting point. Speaking of big States and in the shadow, what’s your take on the Pacific in the way there’s been the Pacific step up, which is arguably Australia has been a little bit of sleep slip of the wheel given our importance in that region, but China has been exceptionally assertive in that area.

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned are you about that in that particular context?

Michael Fullilove:          I think we’ve got a lot of equities in the Pacific and I don’t think we should get jumpy about China. I do think it would be inimical to our interests if a country like China were to establish a military base in the Pacific, and we need to be very nimble about how Pacific Island States are relating to Beijing.

Michael Fullilove:          But let’s not underestimate the strength of our connection to the Pacific, and one of the research products the institutes put out recently that I’m very proud of is the Pacific Aid Map where we tracked all of the aid to the Pacific from all the donors around the world, including China.

Michael Fullilove:          And one of the highlights from that index… from that map, I should say, is that Australia provides 45% of total aid to the Pacific, and if you add the Kiwis, it’s 55%. But if you read the papers, you think China’s aiding our lunch in the Pacific, but actually more than half of the aid comes from Australia and New Zealand.

Michael Fullilove:          And we still have these very thick person ties to China, and most Pacific elites know that sure there’s money to be had, there are commercial opportunities with China, but that in the end, Australia is a better longterm bet. Again, to go back to what we were discussing earlier, we have to be confident in ourselves, confident in our history and confident in what we bring to these other States.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just circling back to United States and Trump in the context of Pacific and Asia Pacific politics. One of the things that is notable about the Trump presidency is how transactional in nature it is. How concerned should we be about the nature of the alliance given the isolation, tendencies of the Trump presidency, given the transactional nature?

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned should we be about the formality of the [inaudible] alliance in that context? Is it bankable? Can we take it to the bank or is it ultimately going to be another deal to be made or broken by Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s a very good question. You’d have to say that the relationship between the Trump administration, the Morrison government is very strong really. So we’re not at risk in the way… The Eye of Sauron is not on us. But having said that, the truth is that Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in alliances and he’s said that consistently for 30 years.

Michael Fullilove:          Let me put it this way, it’s hard to think of a less reliable Alliance partner if your country was in trouble, someone who is less disposed to risking American lives and spending American blood and treasure in defense of an ally on the other side of the world.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, of course, you can’t shrink the American system to the president, and in extremists there’d be lots of people around the president saying this is important.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the links are deeper than the presidency.

Michael Fullilove:          The links are very deep and the deep state, again, thank goodness for the deep state and the deep states, but it has to be admitted that I think… Of course, every country, there’s like an Abacus in the capital and they’re constantly assessing other capitals in terms of reliability, and an intention, and capability and all that.

Michael Fullilove:          And of course, allies around the world are looking at the United States and looking at the president’s instincts and it doesn’t us more confident. That’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:             One thing that’s been very consistent about the Trump presidency has been his approach to the Chinese Communist Party, particularly the Chinese Communist Party under Xi. It’s a very different beast, modern China to even to China of five, 10 years ago. Do you think the world was naive about the rise of China and wasn’t live to the changes under Xi’s regime?

Misha Zelinsky:             Or have we been asleep at the wheel and say that the South trying to see, should we have been Sterner there? Could some of these sudsiness we’re seeing now had been dealt with by being a bit stronger earlier on? How do you see that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that Obama for example, could have been firmer with China definitely, and I think Obama had unrealistic expectations. And I remember this because I was in Washington when he came into office and he really felt that the United States and China could form a group of two at G2 and they together solve all the problems. And I don’t-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is funny, he was an optimist about these things.

Michael Fullilove:          He was. He was an optimist, yeah. But I think that was too optimistic. Yes, I think we misread it, and a lot of analysts misread Xi Jinping in particular, a lot of analysts. Most China analysts thought he would be a steady as he goes leader and not a transformational leader. So I think that’s true.

Michael Fullilove:          The question is now how do we deal with this new China under Xi Jinping where more and more power is being concentrated in the person of the president, where the country has great strengths as we see in military expenditure, and confidence and so on, but also has great weaknesses as we’re seeing in the coronavirus.

Michael Fullilove:          This is the big challenge for leaders, getting the mix of hard and soft, standing up where we feel that China is overstepping the appropriate bounds for a sovereign country, but on the other hand, not squeezing China and not acknowledging that. Of course, it’s a great power and it deserves certain progressives and it deserves respect. The mix of hard and soft is very difficult one to get.

Michael Fullilove:          And on Trump, I don’t really know what Trump’s settling point on China is because he’s very tough on China when it comes to trade, but I don’t think he really cares about security issues when it comes to China. Very hard to imagine Trump caring about half submerge water features in the South China sea. So let’s see where he comes down.

Michael Fullilove:          Today, he’s been tough on trade but not on other [crosstalk 00:35:54]-

Misha Zelinsky:             He’s been tough on 5G though, on techno nationalism, but arguably that’s a trade that he sees it as but.

Michael Fullilove:          There was that tweet, remember when he kind of hinted that if Xi Jinping gave him a good trade deal, maybe Huawei could get it back in. To go to your earlier question, the problem is everything is transactional for Mr. Trump. Everything is a deal waiting to be had.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so what would that mean for something let’s say Taiwan or Hong Kong? He was reasonably firm on Hong Kong, but do you think Hong… sorry, Taiwan is as big a red line for the United States as it is used to be under Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          That’s a very good question. That’s a very good question. I would defer to specialists on it because there’s so many different angles to it, but starting from first principles, not withstanding the vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy and the legitimacy in my view of Taiwan playing an important part in the role in the world, I think if it came down to a sort of a crisis and Mr. Trump had a 3:00 AM moment, I think he’s much more attracted by the idea of doing deals with Xi Jinping, the leader of a giant superpower than he is about defending a scrappy, tiny democracy.

Michael Fullilove:          That’s sort of from the first principles, but of course, as you know, the relationship between the militaries of Taiwan and the United States are very deep as well, so it has a lot of support in Congress in the media. So it’s a complicated question, but I don’t think Trump’s instincts play well for the Taiwanese.

Misha Zelinsky:             A sobering point to leave the formal part of our conversations, but we’ll now switch to the real meat of the debate, the thing that everyone’s been waiting for is barbecue of Michael’s three guests, alive or dead, but they’ve got to be foreign, they can’t be yours. I’m sorry to say [inaudible] but who would you have and why?

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I like the fact that you do it as a barbe because everyone has who do you want to invite to a dinner party or whatever? And barbes are more fun than dinner parties anyway.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s true. There’s more beer.

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I would have to have FDR because I spent years writing about FDR, first of all for my Master’s thesis, then my PhD, then a book. And when you spend so long thinking about someone, you wonder always what would the guy be like, what would actually be like to meet. So that would answer that question for me.

Michael Fullilove:          I would have a strong hypothesis, which would be that he would be great fun because he always mixed the drinks in the oval office at about 5:00. He’d mix the martinis and have everyone in for cocktail hour. And he was just a charming personality, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about him.

Michael Fullilove:          In fact, Winston Churchill said of FDR that meeting him for the first time was like opening your first bottle of Champagne.

Misha Zelinsky:             That is a hell of a rap.

Michael Fullilove:          Now of course we’re going to serve beer at our barbecue, but having someone who has a bit of bubbly to his personality would be good. Secondly, I would probably invite Grace Kelly because I’m a big Hitchcock fan and I loved her. She was such a charming, interesting, intelligent figure with such a crazy life story, and I love that period of all Hollywood. I love Hitchcock movies, and Billy Wilder movies and stuff like that.

Michael Fullilove:          And thirdly, to round it out because we’d need someone to entertain us, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because-

Misha Zelinsky:             Boss.

Michael Fullilove:          … I’m a big longterm fan of the boss. Love his sentimental blue collar view of American democracy, I love his love songs. He’s such an authentic character that I think he would ground this otherwise highfalutin barbecue, and I think he’d be the kind of guy who’d be fun when you’ve got a couple of beers into him. So that’d be my barbe.

Misha Zelinsky:             Or Champagne as it were, but that sounds fantastic. Look, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Michael Fullilove:          Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s been a fantastic chat and good luck with everything [crosstalk 00:40:38]-

Michael Fullilove:          It was a lot of fun. Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.


Alex Oliver

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

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

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


Misha Zelinsky:             Alex Oliver, welcome to the show.

Alex Oliver:                   Thanks very much Misha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I was just curious about-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Iraq war.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Shy Tory, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, and maybe explain those?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that will be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   It correlates with the weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Well, I don’t know-

Misha Zelinsky:             … is it hard to know?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah.

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

Misha Zelinsky:             … but I’m just curious.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That “Stop the boats” rhetoric?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And the Hong Kong situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s right, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And fewer students being sent here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Because that feels tangential and you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, you do.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A tough portfolio.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A great book.

Alex Oliver:                   You read it?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yes.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Defector.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A fascinating story, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah Pete.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A 37 no less-

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Pretty good huh?

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

Alex Oliver:                   And all alive.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Thanks.