Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

Gough’s remaking of foreign policy

Gough Whitlam 1973Gough Whitlam helped Australia think about finding its security in Asia, not to seek security from Asia.

Not least of Whitlam’s achievements was to make Australia colour-blind, in both word and deed. Harold Holt’s government, in 1966, started a quiet—almost covert—dismantling of the White Australia policy with camouflage language about ‘flexibility’. Whitlam’s government used trumpets and drums to kill the White Australia policy as loudly as possible. To the enduring chagrin of Liberals, Labor has claimed the policy honours, based on Whitlam’s characteristically emphatic and emotionally-charged embrace of non-discriminatory immigration.

As the Vietnam War edged to its bloody end, Whitlam’s thinking didn’t retreat from the region along with Australia’s troops. He wrote in his memoirs that ‘forward defence’ was based on the ‘xenophobic belief that Australia was best defended from Asia’. That ‘defended from Asia’ line reflected several layers of Oz nightmare. Read more

Whitlam’s dismantling of immigration xenophobia was mirrored in his language on defence:

We do not see Southeast Asia as a frontier where we might fight nameless Asian enemies as far to the north of our own shores as possible—in other people’s backyards.

In his policy speech for the 1972 election, Whitlam committed to diplomatic recognition of China, an end to military conscription and the maintenance of the alliance with the US as one of Australia’s ‘two great associations’ (the other was the Commonwealth). Whitlam made four foreign policy commitments ‘commensurate to our power and resources’:

  1. National security—the defence-of-Australia doctrine discussed in the previous post
  2. A secure, united and friendly Papua New Guinea—PNG became independent in 1975
  3. Closer relations with our nearest and largest neighbour, Indonesia
  4. Promoting peace and prosperity in our neighbourhood: ‘We should be the natural leaders of the South Pacific’.

Whitlam set a pattern for Australian commitment to the region and Australian support for regionalism that has been sustained by every subsequent government. No less an authority than John Howard nominates Whitlam as the foundational leader for the Great Asia Project that has united every leader since 1972.

Whitlam’s regionalist wins were minor (Australia as ASEAN’s first dialogue partner) compared to later achievements, especially the Hawke government’s creation of APEC and the Howard government’s seat at the East Asia Summit.

But the language and the orientation Hawke used and Howard utilised drew directly from Whitlam’s effort in his first days in office to create an Asia Pacific forum. That forum idea was quickly killed off by Indonesia, in an early demonstration of the veto ASEAN could wield over regional initiatives from Canberra.

Outlining his Asia forum idea in January, 1973, Whitlam said he didn’t want to change and enlarge ASEAN, but to create a broader regional association for Asia and the Pacific, to develop ‘a truly representative regional community’. That grouping should include all of ASEAN and, in line with ASEAN language, Whitlam said it would ‘insulate the region against ideological interference from the great powers’.

The following month, Whitlam flew to Jakarta ‘to demonstrate the political and economic interest that Australia would now take in the region’. Whitlam later remarked that Suharto was ‘frank’; indeed he was. Indonesia’s President said there weren’t enough common interests within Asia for Whitlam’s forum to be practicable. The Australian record quoted Suharto as doubting the ‘usefulness of a formal conference or organisation. This would only aggravate conflicting interests. ASEAN also needed to be consolidated beforehand’. Suharto said he wouldn’t want India as a member of an Asia Pacific grouping and there’d be questions about Chinese participation. We’ve all come a long way since then, and the journey has reflected Whitlam’s vision, not Suharto’s fears.

Whitlam’s final-and-forever embedding of a non-discriminatory immigration policy stands as a supreme achievement, domestically and internationally. It was as foundational in its meaning for Australian foreign policy as the opening to China, so well described by Ross Terrill.

Whitlam’s embrace of Indonesia was equally fundamental; Tony Abbott’s presence at the inauguration of Indonesia’s President testifies to the continuing strength of this policy strand. Ironically, Whitlam’s successful embrace of Suharto became his foreign policy nemesis—East Timor.

Whitlam put two points to Suharto in September, 1974. First, East Timor should become part of Indonesia. Second, incorporation ‘should happen in accordance with the properly expressed wishes of the people of Portuguese Timor’. As the head of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, later wrote, Whitlam changed Australia’s position to a two-pronged policy when the two points were irreconcilable. Suharto embraced Whitlam’s first point and ignored the second. It took 25 years to undo the damage to Australia-Indonesia relations and the deadly costs for East Timor.

Whitlam’s East Timor blunder stemmed from his ambitions for Australia in Asia. The Timor stain touches the edge of the Whitlam toga, but it doesn’t gainsay that he was a big man who dreamed big dreams of Australia’s role in its own region. Gough Whitlam did much to launch Australia’s Great Asia Project and much that he dreamed has come to pass.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Carl Guderian.

Gough’s remaking of Defence policy

Phuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam. 10 October 1966. Gough Whitlam, then Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition, has a laugh during a talk with Private Wayne Weldon of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.Gough Whitlam was a physical giant with an intellect to match. His flaws were pretty sizeable, too, and the pygmies who beset him were often from his own party. His self-mocking humour was immensely appealing, and could only be carried off by someone with giant status: ‘I’ve never said I’m immortal. I do believe in correct language. I’m eternal; I’m not immortal’.

The Strategist is the right place to appreciate the bigness of the man’s ambitions—and significant achievements in foreign and defence policy. This post will consider Defence.

During his three years in government, from 1972 to 1975, in the agony of the final days of the Vietnam War, Whitlam delivered Australia two immensely valuable strategic benefits that are still central today. He held on to the US alliance and he helped give birth to an understanding that Australia could defend itself. The two thoughts aren’t truly opposed and Whitlam’s achievement was to embrace them both in ways that made it possible for them to become the heart of Australian defence policy, strongly supported by both sides of politics. Read more

Whitlam’s coming to power was the moment when Australia could’ve turned away from the US alliance. In the dark days of Opposition, Jim Cairns went close to beating Whitlam in a close-run caucus leadership ballot. The vote was all about an acid question aimed at their giant leader—‘Whose party is it, his or ours?’ Luckily, Labor decided it was Whitlam’s party.

A Cairns leadership—or merely a post-Whitlam leadership—could’ve seen Labor go down the road David Lange took New Zealand. The bitterness and disillusion of Vietnam would’ve been the context and the cause would’ve been ALP opposition to US bases in Australia. Nixon’s intense displeasure at the critical comments about Vietnam coming from the new Australian government would’ve meant there was no mood of compromise in Washington.

Whitlam preserved the core structure of ANZUS and fought off the efforts of the ALP Left to close the US intelligence and communications bases. Hanging on to the alliance was an important call, and Whitlam made it. Part of the trick was the rhetoric about a new and more confident Australia that shifted beyond a subservient dependence on the US. After Nixon’s ‘Guam doctrine’ moment in 1969—allies would have ‘primary responsibility’ for their own defence—Australia had started to grapple with the implications of the demise of ‘forward defence’ in Southeast Asia and what a Defence-of-Australia policy might look like.

Under Whitlam, the Arthur Tange revolution was launched upon the Defence Department, amalgamating five departments and giving birth to the term ‘Australian Defence Force’. The conceptual changes that swept through Canberra meant that it was the Fraser government in 1976 that brought down an accurate rendering of the new defence policy Tange had created for Whitlam.

After the bitter political division over Vietnam, conscription and the alliance, the Whitlam Labor and Fraser Liberal governments enshrined a bipartisan defence consensus that has lasted more than 40 years. Australia could create an independent capability for its own defence and action in its own region that reinforced rather than weakened the US alliance.

To see Whitlam’s role in that achievement, see that first Australian Defence White Paper in 1976 (PDF) as a joint Whitlam-Fraser achievement, delivered by Fraser but built by Whitlam. At its core were Whitlam’s thoughts about the need for Australia’s ‘new role’ and the stress on the need for Australia to be self-reliant:

We no longer base our policy on the expectation that Australia’s Navy or Army or Air Force will be sent abroad as part of some other nation’s force, supported by it. We do not rule out an Australian contribution to operations elsewhere if the requirement arose … But we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our Armed Services will be conducting joint operations together as the Australian Defence Force.

The battle over what those thoughts mean for the ADF still rages in Canberra, but Whitlam’s role in putting them at the heart of Australian policy (and quickly moving on from the trauma of Vietnam) is unarguable.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Canberra’s unholy trinity

APH facadeHere’s Canberra lore—or three rules of an Unholy Trinity—explaining how politicians operate. When nothing makes sense, rely on the Trinity pulsing beneath the surface of party, parliament and government:

  1. It’s always personal
  2. There’s always a deal
  3. Follow the money.

I claim no custody of this lore. Spend four decades in the company of politicians in this town and the Unholy Trinity becomes a trusty guide. The rules have general application. Thucydides would have jotted them down if only he’d spent more time in the press gallery. Machiavelli penned a version for princes. Read more

When the Trinity parades in public, the rules appear as power, politics and policy. Rule one, the personal, is the power dimension. Rule two, the deal, is the politics. And money is ever a synonym for policy. In this discussion, other fundamentals of passion, principle and purpose sit on a different mountain—one at the other end of the range, shrouded in cloud.

To jargonise, the rules describe crucial inputs; the outputs are government and legislation. Government and law are done in writing while the Trinity operates an oral culture. The personal calculations and deals are done face to face. Talking comes first. The write-up happens later to dress the deal as policy. The Canberra press gallery reports politics as high-gossip-with-added-facts-and-figures to hint at what goes on in the big building under the giant flag, home to the three rules, two Houses and one government:

1. It’s always personal
The ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘How could this hurt me?’ questions are only part of the rule, although never to be discounted. As Jack Lang taught Paul Keating; ‘Bet on self-interest, it’s a horse that’s always trying’. Beyond glory and greed, render ‘always personal’ as the ‘will to power’, with all the personality baggage loaded onto that one phrase—ambition, ego, hatred, fear. Only driven personalities apply. The terrain is treacherous, the rewards as great as the risks. More fall off the mountain than reach the peak.

Isaiah Berlin catches the first two rules in Political Judgement when arguing that the politician’s art has few ‘laws’ and little ‘science’. Instead, personal instinct and skills are decisive. The skilled politician grasps ‘the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation—this and no other…the character of a particular moment, of a particular individual, of a unique state of affairs, of a unique atmosphere, of some particular combination of economic, political, personal factors’.

The ‘always personal’ rule is about the individual politician’s mix of experience, imagination, intuition and luck. Then the rule broadens to encompass the personalities of all the other politicians in the tribe (party), because the best allies and worst enemies sit beside you. Skill is about seizing the emerging pattern or surviving the crisis, making the call or doing the deal, building for a win or swerving to minimise loss. At the peak, this is Bismarck’s statesman able to hear the footsteps of history; down on the lower slopes it’s doing the numbers and judging the mood of caucus. While no qualification is needed to be a politician, a lot of qualities are needed to be good at it.

2. There’s always a deal
If to govern is to choose, then to politic is to deal. Australians want good government and law but aren’t keen on the politics that produce those fine sausages. Barry Humphries, comic genius, national treasure, and creator of snout-in-the-trough-supremo Sir Les Patterson, delivers a verdict from the heart of Oz, mocking Canberra’s dramas as ‘the battle of the dwarves’. A more understanding but equally ironic version was that of a wonderful old press gallery hack who used to proclaim in the non-members bar: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to discover that base and grubby politics is being played here in the heart of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia’.

The oral culture of the deal can burst into spectacular view: the Kirribilli agreement when Hawke promised Keating the succession in front of two witnesses and the similar moment when Howard promised to hand over to Costello because ‘one-and-a-half terms would be enough’. Both leaders reneged, which points you straight back to rule one on power and personality.

3. The golden rule is that gold rules.
When you can’t decipher the personalities, and the deals are safely secret, the money trail points the way up the mountain.

With the rules as aid, turn to the memoir by Australia’s 27th Prime Minister. My Story is a good and revealing work, although often in ways Julia Gillard might not intend. She writes how her eyes were set on the far peak where purpose and principle reside, but the Real Story is the struggle on the mountain where the Unholy Trinity rules.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Dave Sutherland.

General MacArthur on the US pivot to Oz

Macarthur and Curtin2

Turn to Douglas MacArthur for a tough and true description of what Australia means to the United States.

It’s 1942. The US commander is meeting Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin to plan the war against Japan and America’s new alliance with Australia.

MacArthur tells Curtin that America sees Australians as a bunch of bronzed Brits, tied to Britain by blood, sentiment and allegiance to the Crown. That analysis shows its age, but MacArthur’s following thoughts resonate today as they did 72 years ago:

The United States was an ally whose aim was to win the war, and it had no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia. …In view of the strategical importance of Australia in war with Japan, this course of military action would probably be followed irrespective of the American relationship to the people who might be occupying Australia.

Read more

Australia now has a standing alliance with the US and the two countries have done a lot together in the intervening 72 years. Any US general today would be far more polite and lay it on with a trowel; we certainly do. Still, MacArthur’s underlying thought holds. Australia is a marvellous bit of big real estate. It wouldn’t matter if the continent was occupied by Hottentots or Helots, the US would have strategic interests in Oz.

The realism beneath the rhetoric works in both directions. Australia knows the benefits it banks from Uncle Sam. Whether via treaty or mere habit, the US now has an interest in Oz’s territorial integrity. The role and worth of the alliance is one of the currents that runs through Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?, the first book of Melbourne University Press’ series on Australian strategy.

The quote from MacArthur—the sort of gem that turns archives dross into diamonds—is from Peter Dean’s fine chapter on the alliance. His work—and several other parts of New Era—rebut the argument of the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, that Australia is being conned, dunned and mislead by the US.

Peter Dean argues that the benefits Australia draws from the alliance far outweigh the costs. In intelligence, he writes, Australia is ‘an immense beneficiary’ and our access to US technology ‘rivals or surpasses the intelligence sharing access’. Dean endorses the view that from Vietnam to Iraq, Australia has been a hound dog, not a lap dog; no innocent victim, Oz has had a keen nose for its own purposes.

In the China decades of the Asian century, the US is coming afresh to MacArthur’s understanding about Oz real estate. Australia can give American forces strategic depth, operating bases, a site for prepositioning equipment, plus space and facilities for training; that’s what the 25 year Force Posture agreement signed at the August AUSMIN is all about.

MacArthur would have nodded knowingly at the trade-offs between sovereign interest and strategic intent that run through the Force Posture treaty, such as Article XII:

Vessels and vehicles operated by or exclusively for United States Forces may enter, exit, and move freely within the territory and territorial sea of Australia.

As the Americans rebalance our way, they might be impolite enough to ask Oz to put weight behind its usual words. Peter Dean observes:

Australia will find it much more difficult to commit small, niche and largely single service military forces to any potential US-led operation in Southeast Asia or the eastern Indian Ocean. Rather than simply doing our reasonable share as we have done for the past sixty years, it is likely the US will ask Australia to actually “punch above its weight” in the future.

The vision of Australia having to do more with the US where we live rings alarms for Malcolm Fraser. The Fraser lap-dog view of Oz doesn’t give much weight to the value the ol’ hound has extracted from the deal.

For that perspective, see Mark Thomson’s chapter in New Era:

For the past sixty years, the unspoken reality has been that we have “free ridden” on the efforts of the US. Since the late 1970s, it has all but been written into our defence policy. Australia has designed a defence force to defend its territory and explicitly relegated regional security under ANZUS to an afterthought.

As Mark observes, it has been easy for Oz to look good because of its ‘willingness to free ride just a little bit less than others’. MacArthur would understand that, too.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

A new era for Australian defence 

Sydney Opera HouseTitles are always difficult, so give a good mark to ‘Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?

Mixing pickiness with praise, tick the ‘new era’ idea while guffawing at the question mark hanging off the title. Making the title a question is symptomatic of the timidity that gives academics a bad name. Don’t assert your argument, seek cover behind a query. Put a question mark in the title, then spend 344 pages ‘interrogating’ the question. Really? Oh, dear? Enough? This question-thingy does funny things to writing, eh?

Please disregard my querulous start. All praise for this first book in MUP’s series on strategy and warfare in Australia’s region.

Even as Iraq and the previous decade call again, the book makes the case that Oz faces new times, positioned between a rising China and a rebalancing America. The era will test Australia’s middle-power status and challenge its traditional vow to maintain a technological edge over regional militaries. Read more

One product that’ll struggle as a new era marker is the coming Defence White Paper. The 2015 Paper will be the third such defining document in six years; these are evolving iterations, handmaidens rather than harbingers. Still, the proposition that Australia confronts a new era can stand tall as a statement, not cower as a question.

Where the book shines in conception and execution is in its building on a foundational tome of Oz strategic studies, Tom Millar’s ‘Australia’s Defence’, published in 1965 (my copy is stamped from the ship’s library of HMAS Melbourne). The New Era volume is good enough to sit beside Millar; in this realm, praise comes no higher.

The Millar base and quality writers deliver a book that works as a set of excellent variations on the central theme rather than disparate essays—the chapters are from a mix of old guns (style them heavy artillery) and an insurgency of young guns (impressive new firepower).

Writing well about Australian politics, defence and strategic culture is a deeply difficult task. Russell Trood is one of the few who can do it from the inside and from the academy, as an International Relations Professor and Liberal Senator. His chapter launches New Era by considering an Australian strategic culture ‘infused with traditions and ways of acting and behaving that shape policy processes as much as they contribute to policy outcomes’.

One tradition is how Australia gets Defence Ministers. The former Senator is blunt—talent isn’t the top qualification to run Defence:

‘Holding office at the will of the standing prime minister, ministers invariably find themselves appointed for reasons other than talent—party political and factional balance, seniority and accommodation of state interests being most prominent among them. Regardless of the motivations, however, the regrettable record is that most occupants of the Defence Minister’s office have served for a relatively short time. Much the same came be said of Secretaries of Defence, of whom there has been a steady procession. In neither case has this been helpful to the stability of leadership in Defence or contributed to the continuity of policymaking.’

Trood judges Defence a portfolio where ‘persistent and repeated policy failures have exposed widespread shortcomings and weaknesses in the management of the department, eroded public confidence in the political and organisational leadership of defence and begun to undermine its historic and hard won reputation as one of the iconic and centrally important institutions of Australian society.’

Trood’s solution is not another independent review. Defence has had 15 of them since 2003. They are used for policy failure, to seek change, as political tool and to manage internal controversies, but Trood thinks Defence has become too dependent on reviews as a mechanism of governance.

Other old guns are equally quick on the draw. Paul Dibb shows again why he’s the Master; Richard Brabin-Smith is still the Sage.

The Sage can be sharp. The final sentence of the book is Brab calling for Defence to be treated ‘more like the instrument of state policy that it is, and less like a constituency that has to be flattered and cajoled’. His force structure chapter is a meditation on risks and resources beyond most people’s ken. The demand is for judgment, hard choices and big calls stretching decades.

The Master’s Strategy chapter is classic Dibb:

‘…a map of one’s own country is the most fundamental of all defence documentation. However, it is still conspicuously missing in force structure arguments coming from the single services, as well as some so-called expert commentators. The abiding nature of Australia’s continental geography and its maritime surrounds should be an iron discipline in determining force structure priorities and ADF dispositions.’

Salvos aplenty!

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of See-ming Lee.

What Jokowi confronts

Through the Suharto years, the economists were optimistic about Indonesia and the political scientists were pessimistic. Now the roles have reversed.

With the explosion of Indonesian democracy, the political types can hardly contain their joy at the rich vistas—oh, what glory to study the cornucopia that is today’s Indonesia. The economists have reverted to type as exponents of the dismal science. The role switch was on display at the 32nd annual Indonesia Update at the Australian National University the other day.

Professor Hal Hill, one of the two most cheerful economists I know—with a grin to match his smarts—opined that Indonesia is at an economic crossroads, facing its most difficult period since the 1997–98 financial crisis toppled Suharto. Prof Hal sees a complete disconnect between the political narrative of this election year and the economic reality facing Indonesia. Read more

The optimism of the political analysts was best expressed by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, from the office of Indonesia’s Vice President, describing a modern Asian success story: ‘Indonesia is stronger, more democratic and more united than it was ten years ago.’

In the classic Indonesian manner, they are both right. The tensions between the economic and political visions are captured in Dr Peter McCawley’s new ASPI paper. Peter’s my other cheerful economist; perhaps having devoted his life to development economics, optimism rates as a professional need as well as personal trait.

In the ASPI interview with McCawley, we started with the series of summits Jokowi will attend as soon as he is sworn in—APEC in Beijing, East Asia Summit in Naypyitaw and the G20 in Brisbane. McCawley suggests Jokowi might quickly adopt the mantle of a Javanese leader and just ‘nod and listen’.

Even in considering the trio of summits and Jokowi’s new leadership of ASEAN, the discussion quickly reverts to Indonesian domestic dynamics—from money politics to the institutional limits confronting the new president.

Will Jokowi, like SBY, preside not rule, govern not change? As McCawley observes, power is dispersed:

We are now learning something about the position of the presidency of Indonesia. What does it mean to be the President of Indonesia? And how much real power does the presidency hold? Joko Widowo and SBY are far closer in the powers they have to the President of the United States than they are to, say, the Prime Minister of Australia. The President of the US always has to bargain with the Congress and finds it quite difficult and is sometimes subject to surprising rulings from the judiciary as well; that traditional three prongs of power, the administration, the legislature and the judiciary…It’s a mistake to assume—and this is becoming clearer and clearer—it’s a mistake to assume that the President of Indonesia can necessarily easily get his way with the legislature. For 40 years we lived with President Suharto who made parliament look quite unimportant. The game has changed dramatically now. This will be tested in the next three months, six months, under President Joko Widodo.

In his ASPI paper, McCawley writes that the two economic scenarios on offer are an outward-looking reform path that would be politically tough to implement versus  a populist and nationalist resilience path that would turn Indonesia inwards:

If there are strong pressures on Joko Widodo, including from the parliament, to adopt populist policies, the incoming government may find it difficult to promote strong economic growth. In an inward-looking resilience scenario in which the government faces resistance to reform measures, the overall rate of economic growth could remain relatively low, perhaps below 6% per year. That wouldn’t be sufficient to provide jobs for the expanding labour force, and unemployment could be expected to rise. Criticism of Widodo’s leadership would be likely to grow. The first requirement for a higher rate of growth is a sustained level of investment of over 30% of GDP. But increasing nationalism would be likely to discourage foreign investment, particularly in the oil and mining sectors. In turn, that would also tend to constrain domestic investment. In that case, the other sectors of the economy could also become sluggish before too long.

The interview finishes on Australia and Indonesia (their elites understand Oz a lot better than our elites understand the giant next door, McCawley observes) and the neighbourly echoes to be found in political jokes.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow.

Japan as small ‘a’ ally

Abe and Abbott
Some key elements have yet to embrace the idea of Australia and Japan as allies. Two groups not to have noticed or still to be convinced are the peoples of Japan and Australia. Fair enough, perhaps, because the idea has zoomed into view in less than 15 years. As notable is the political divide that has just appeared—this is one alliance where Australia’s major parties aren’t in vigorous agreement.

The Australian Labor Party is now sceptical about Japan as an ally, while the Liberal Party is an enthusiastic booster of the alliance; John Howard launched the effort and Tony Abbott is pushing it even harder. Abbott’s description of Japan as a ‘strong ally’ last year prompted columns on the differences in the language used by Labor and Liberal governments, and what Abbott wanted to build.

Fronting the first Senate Estimates hearing this year, Foreign Affairs secretary Peter Varghese had to explain Japan as a ‘strong ally’. Always one of the smartest men in the room, Varghese finessed Abbott’s ‘ally’ while not going all the way with his PM:

The term ‘ally’ can be used in a precise way and it can be used in a generalised way. It can be used with a capital ‘A’ or a small ‘a’. Japan is not a capital ‘A’ ally because we do not have a security agreement with Japan in the way that we have with the United States. Japan is a very close economic and strategic partner.

Read more

That’s a fine example of taking cover in clarification and seeking camouflage from classification. The idea of Japan as small ‘a’ ally has enough truth to it for this column to argue that Japan now sits on the second tier of Australia’s defence relationships, along with the traditional Anglo Allies, Britain and New Zealand.

Japan as ally is so new it caused the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader to misstep with their mouths. Their rhetorical ricochets were in different directions. Abbott was too effusive while Bill Shorten ranted several steps too far.

In welcoming Shinzo Abe to the Australian Parliament, Abbott paid tribute to ‘the skill and the sense of honour’ of the Japanese submariners who attacked Sydney Harbour. The sharp WWII history lesson Abbott received from parts of the Australian community was forceful advice that the Japan relationship can’t be built by airbrushing the past. Abe got the tone better with his words to Parliament about the horror and the trauma of that war.

Shorten brought up Japan’s torpedoing of Australian ships during WWII to attack speculation that Australia’s new submarine could be based on Japan’s Soryu subs. The Opposition Leader said a future Labor government might not honour a submarine contract with Japan. It’d be ironic if an effort to get value for defence dollars actually gets Australians to focus on the meaning of a small ‘a’ alliance that has both a bilateral and trilateral base.

In launching the US–Australia–Japan trilateral and in building bilateral defence ties, John Howard’s government took the lead and Japan warmed slowly. When Foreign Minister Alexander Downer first broached the trilateral with his Japanese counterpart he was told Australia was too insignificant as a security player for Tokyo to bother. Equally, Canberra was eager to go further than Tokyo in the ambit of the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that Howard and Abe signed in March 2007.

As Greg Sheridan wrote at the time: ‘The Howard Government was keen to be as ambitious as the Japanese could accommodate and would have been happy with a formal security treaty. However, Japanese Government lawyers believed that it would be legally and politically too difficult to square such a treaty with their constitution.’

The then Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, was aiming at the Howard government rather than at Tokyo when he said there should be no step beyond the Security Declaration towards a full Australia-Japan defence pact: ‘To do so at this stage may unnecessarily tie our security interests to the vicissitudes of an unknown security policy future in North East Asia.’

In government, Rudd didn’t slow the growth of the military relationship, while the Gillard government quietly maintained the momentum; perhaps so quietly one Labor minister, Bill Shorten, didn’t notice. A lot of Australians are in the same boat (or submarine).

The Lowy Institute 2014 survey of Australian attitudes to the world posed a question based on Abbott’s embrace of Japan as ‘Australia’s best friend in Asia’ and got a different result: 31% of Australians nominated China as our best friend while 28% said Japan. See that as a B+ for our small ‘a’ ally.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user The Gov’t of Japan.

The Canberra officer (8): politicisation

Members of the 1st Signal Regiment, who formed the guard of honour for the centenary parade, prepare to present arms as they commemorate 100 years since the inception of the 1st Division.The avowed purpose of the Canberra officer project is to get an officer corps that can better serve Australia’s political leaders and win the bureaucratic battles. An undeclared purpose is the creation of political nous. This is the taboo of politicisation, discussed in the previous column of this series through the experience of one Chief of the Defence Force.

Creating the Canberra officer is a good and proper project, but a clear effect is that senior officers dance closer to the political flames. To be positive, call this need for nous merely proper attention to the nature and needs of government; the negative rendering sees a politicisation that blurs the clear demarcations of roles and responsibilities between military and ministers. The dynamic reaches to both dimensions. Read more

A former service chief, commenting on the officer project, told me the military knew it had to get smarter at handling how Canberra really operates: ‘Officers who go through the system in Canberra have to get used to ambiguity. If you don’t understand ambiguity you fail in this town. The military people who fail in Canberra are those who expect the politicians and bureaucrats to listen to them in an unquestioning way. You need to know how power works.’

The ambiguity rule in the power game says the best argument and the strongest logic don’t always go together, nor do they always win even if they stand united. A fine secretary of Defence used to admonish his staffers, only half in jest: ‘You’re being logical again, stupid, I’ve warned you about that.’

To serve Canberra’s power needs, senior officers and Defence officials have got closer to their political masters and the demands of the ministerial office. That means adopting elements of the political trade, especially the media obsession. The federal government employs 1900 spin doctors, communications and marketing specialists. The Tax Office is the biggest employer with 265 such staff, while Defence comes second with 216 media specialists. That really is doing it the Canberra way—staying on message is as important as proper saluting.

The aim of the project is to change the type of senior officers the system produces. Peter Jennings points to key personality characteristics by reflecting on the six Chiefs of the Defence Force he has dealt with, describing them as ‘understated leaders, who put a premium on calmness and seldom raise their voices in anger’. No purple-faced screamers need apply. Peter writes that the evolving ADF leadership style has done away with fearsome generals as part of the redesign of organisational culture, responding to operational experience and Canberra’s needs:

‘In the Canberra policy world, success usually goes to those able to build consensus, supporting specific outcomes. Qualities that help include a capacity to negotiate, patience, listening skills and a certain amount of empathy, if only to help understand and counter the views of potential opponents. Read or, better still, watch any Estimates Committee hearings and you’ll see that most of the senior leadership of the ADF have those qualities in spades.’

In developing officers with political nous, Australia is tracking trends in the two militaries our services watch most closely and embrace most dearly—the US and British. In both, the taboo of politicisation has got more of an airing. After US Army General Stanley McChrystal was ejected for badmouthing his president, Yale Professor Bruce Ackerman argued that this showed changes in the way US officers think about civilian leaders:

‘Studies over the last dozen years suggest that “a majority of active-duty officers believe that senior officers should ‘insist’ on making civilian officers accept their viewpoints”; and 65% of senior officers think it is OK to go public and advocate military policies they believe “are in the best interests of the United States.” In contrast, only 29% believe that high-ranking civilians, rather than their military counterparts, “should have the final say on what type of military force to use”.’

In his three years as Britain’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, saw a deep imbalance in the relationship between the British military and its government:

‘A trend has set in where an overconfident and under-managed military machine fills a vacuum left by politicians, civil servants and diplomats unable or unwilling to provide firm strategic direction. The military is not just doing the fighting, but increasingly it is allowed to decide the overall direction of the campaign.’

When British military chiefs questioned whether they had resources for new military operations, Prime Minister Cameron shot back: ‘You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.’

Canberra has been spared such public dramas. Here, when governments get testy, they fire Defence secretaries, not generals. And the slouch hat mystique means our leaders are careful to be kind to the khaki.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

The House resolves to give death-with-sense

PM Tony Abbott with Chief of Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin announcing Australia will join international partners to help the anti-ISIL forces in Iraq.In the Australian system going to war is extremely simple. The Prime Minister and Cabinet agree, the order is given and the shooting starts. Then there’s the hard stuff—not just the fighting, but handling the politics and policy and the people.

As Vietnam and Iraq showed, a government that goes to war must be able to give its people death-with-sense and maintain that sense for the long haul; there must be purpose and principle, a reason for the sacrifice and justification for the funerals. Not least important is the belief by the military that their country understands and supports the mission.

If the death-with-sense argument falters and can’t be maintained, people turn against the war—and against the government. Here we come to the hard political argument and policy requirement to strengthen existing parliamentary precedents on the use of the Australian Defence Force. Beyond using its majority in the House, any Australian government should use the Parliament to offer death-with-sense, to sustain the will to fight and define the mission. Read more

The Australian Constitution, indeed, gives all power to the executive on war. But that’s the start, not the finish. The way Australia heads off into conflict matters for how the war-with-sense debate evolves. The start, the foundation—the framing, in minder-speak—sets in place much that matters for what follows. The political and policy logic is that any Prime Minister should use the Parliament to build the broadest and strongest foundation. It’s about taking the country with you.

True, no government—Labor or Coalition—is going to give the Senate a vote on war or overseas deployment. Australian governments don’t usually have a majority in the upper house; end of argument.

For a discussion of those issues, see the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee giving the thumbs down to a proposed law allowing Australian Defence Force personnel to go overseas only if the House and the Senate both approved the deployment.

So, no law. Instead, consider existing precedents and habits that can build towards conventions to be used in the House of Representatives. Consider how those conventions feed existing powers of review held by the Senate, and the way in which the Senate can grill Defence leadership in regular Estimates hearings.

In the House of Representatives, build on the ANZUS precedent, the Afghanistan convention and Abbott’s recent criteria to frame a resolution on war, to be considered even if the government has already declared war.

The ANZUS precedent is the eight-point motion that then Prime Minister John Howard moved in the House on 17 September 2001, invoking the ANZUS treaty following the 9/11 attacks on the US. The motion didn’t go to the military actions that followed, but set out fundamental arguments for why Australia would act. That’s the place to start for all future motions on military action. Before Australia commits forces overseas, the House should approve a similar motion that offers answers to the Abbott questions, as posed by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives last week on 1 September.

Prime Minister Abbott said if a request for Australian military action in Iraq came from the Obama administration and the Iraq government, it’d be considered against these criteria:

Is there a clear and achievable overall objective? Is there a clear and proportionate role for Australian forces? Have all the risks been properly assessed? And is there an overall humanitarian objective in accordance with Australia’s national interests?

The PM offers good questions for a humanitarian intervention. For a war, add in bigger questions about what victory would look like and the proper end point. What should be the scope of the commitment and what are the aims? What should be the exit strategy? What forces are needed? Hugh White gives the flavour with his questions: What precisely are we trying to achieve by fighting? Is there is a reasonable chance of success? Would success be worth what it might cost?

The resolution that goes to the House of Representatives, even if the government has already ordered war, should address those fundamental issues—of aims, means and ends. The resolution then becomes the measure of what follows in the war-with-sense struggle. If the nature of the humanitarian crisis or military deployment or war changes, a further resolution should go to the House. The executive has the power to give the order, but it isn’t asking too much that it give parliament and the people a clear account of what’s to be done.

Add to that the Afghanistan convention, instituted by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that the government gives regular, formal reports to Parliament on the course of the conflict. That’s an important innovation that should become an established convention.

If those precedents become conventions we would see a House of Representative resolution on committing Australian forces overseas, setting out in clear terms the objectives and conditions of the deployment. That resolution should declare:

  1. The mission;
  2. The aims: Abbott’s clear and achievable objectives;
  3. The forces that could be used; and
  4. The end point and anticipated exit strategy.

We’d also see regular, detailed reports to parliament setting out the progress of the mission, measured against the terms of the original resolution.

Moreover, there should be a standing reference to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence whenever Australian forces are deployed. At the least, the committee should hold hearings once a year in which it calls the Secretary of Defence and Chief of the Defence Force to give evidence on the deployment/conflict and to testify how the terms of the mission resolution are being met.

With such a framework in place, the regular Senate Estimates hearings could become the venue to review progress against the stated aims. Parliament would be doing some of the heavy lifting to help the government deliver war-with-sense.​

Note: ‘Death-with-sense’ is drawn from David Morrison’s 1992 book, ‘Television and the Gulf War’ and his observation about the Vietnam war: ‘All governments must have their citizens accept the cost of death and injury that inevitably follows from war as a legitimate price for a correct political policy. And that is precisely what the American television networks could not deliver to their audience with Vietnam – death with sense.’ For Morrison, the death-with-sense problem in Vietnam was not the eventual collapse of national will ‘but the failure to build it up adequately in the first place.’

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.

The Canberra officer (7): political nous and playing politics

Then Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC, returned the salute of Australia’s Federation Guard at the beginning of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which was held at the Sydney Football Stadium in 2010.

Previous posts in this series explored the Canberra officer project; Arthur Tange; the promised land of Jointery; taming the service chiefs; the Vice CDF; and CDF atop the diarchy.

The military venturing into politics is taboo: politicians command, generals obey, constitutional and military demarcations are clear. Well…yes, but…

Senior officers play against top politicians, often close to the hottest politics. The taboo can’t banish the political codes and tones and moves the ADF wields. To illustrate, consider a great Canberra officer who burnished rather than burnt his career by telling Parliament the truth about ‘kids overboard’.

Angus Houston was one of the best recent chiefs of Air Force, stepping up to be a fine chief of the Defence Force. Houston’s decade at the top proved he’s an excellent product of the Canberra officer project. Not least of his skills was political nous. Houston’s political intelligence is one of the project’s defining requirements, even if taboo. Read more

First, a 2010 character sketch from the veteran Ian McPhedran:

Well regarded by politicians from both sides and seen by the public as a warm and gentle man, Houston is a tough operator when it comes to dealing with his subordinates and the six defence ministers and three prime ministers to serve under his watch. ‘In private he can be imperious and he is brutal with his underlings,’ a well-placed source said. His ruthless streak was used to good effect to prevent former Army Chief Peter Leahy from lining up for the top job. Former Howard Government Defence minister, Brendan Nelson, said Houston loved the Defence Force ‘as much as he loves his wife.’ He was intelligent, caring and protective of people in uniform. ‘He has a genuine affection for them,’ Dr Nelson said. He said his biggest shortcoming was that ‘he doesn’t understand that sometimes it is important to admit you don’t know and to promise to find out.’

So—key traits, political or military—push hard, have the facts, no weakness. Come to a period when Defence allegedly leaked against its own Minister (Defence investigated and absolved itself); eventually the Minister resigned. Exiting in 2009, Joel Fitzgibbon lashed out at Judases in his own ministerial office and in Defence. The weekend after the resignation, Glenn Milne in the Sunday Telegraph (June 7, 2009) reported Fitzgibbon telling colleagues that Houston was ‘the best politician in the country’.

The Houston response to the barb-cum-compliment was a concise description of power as seen from the CDF’s chair:

My job is not to say: ‘Yes Minister’. My job is to basically provide frank and fearless advice, and I do that. But at the end of the day, I totally accept that the minister or the Prime Minister in the National Security Committee of Cabinet has to make the decision.

Notice the grouping: minister, PM, and NSC. Ministers come and go. The NSC presides and the PM rules. Houston had a ringside seat at the NSC where he watched policy being made at close range, and, by invitation, took part in debates.

On the day Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was shifting to become Defence Minister in 2010, Houston was briefing journalists on Afghanistan, and praised his new minister:

As the minister for Foreign Affairs, he was intimately involved with everything to do with Afghanistan. I’ve always found him to be a hell of a nice guy and I respect him for his competence and his capability.

Fulsome, indeed, but no departmental secretary would pass such a public judgement on an incoming minister. Former Liberal leader, John Hewson, wrote that Houston’s ‘disturbing’ comments on Smith’s ‘appropriateness’ illustrated the military’s sense that it’s different and special:

It is not an exaggeration to say that Defence now pretty much sets its own ‘rules of engagement’ with government. Indeed, it can be argued they are not blameless in explaining the high turnover of Defence ministers. Defence force chiefs see themselves as ‘all powerful’ and in ultimate control, with the department working for them, and the minister mostly to be tolerated, sometimes where necessary intimidated or just humoured.’

In the strange ways of politics, this attack rates as a tribute to perceived power.

Finish with a funny moment that says something about current perceptions. In 2011, as Houston headed for retirement, the Canberra Times ran a yarn quoting ‘a defence insider’ saying that the Defence Secretary, Ian Watt, would step down at the same time Houston left. That prompted a denial statement from Dr Watt: ‘Notwithstanding media speculation in this morning’s Canberra Times, I advise that I have no intention to resign from my position when Air Chief Marshal Houston retires, whenever that might be.’

Defence secretaries don’t yet have to commit sati on the pyre of departing CDFs.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Hard news and soft power in the South Pacific

Australia has sent forth many outstanding journalists to spend their careers reporting on Asia. Sean Dorney stands with those correspondents but, uniquely, he devoted his life to covering Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.

Because of Australia’s recurring capacity to forget the Islands, only a handful of Oz hacks will ever approach Dorney’s lifetime of Pacific reporting. His retirement from the ABC after 40 years completes a long journey.

Dorney did dual service—reporting the South Pacific to Australia and the region to itself. His stories were broadcast to PNG and the Islands on Radio Australia shortwave and retransmitted on local FM transmitters in Island capitals. Then he added pictures by becoming Pacific correspondent for the ABC’s international TV service. He truly was a South Pacific correspondent as well as an Australian reporter. Read more

The citation for Dorney’s Order of Australia in 2000 read: ‘For service to journalism as a foreign correspondent.’ And that gets it right, because his service was to journalism in the South Pacific as well as in Australia.

Sean started out as PNG was just beginning the nation-building job bequeathed it at independence. Australia did a reasonable job administering PNG but until the last moment paid no attention to preparing for nationhood; the creation of the sense of a nation had to be done by PNG.

Dorney’s journalism contributed to the understanding PNG developed of itself. He did the same for South Pacific regionalism—the idea that these newly independent island states could have a collective South Pacific identity. Quite an achievement for one man with a microphone.

As a young ABC hack, he went to Port Moresby on secondment in 1974 and spent three years working with PNG’s new NBC radio service. He met and married Pauline, the first female journalist/broadcaster from Manus Province, in late 1976. One of the many things Pauline made him do was pay the proper bride price so Dorney would have status with the village—and he’s been learning ever since. This was a reporter who embraced PNG in every sense.

The family returned to Port Moresby in 1979 when Sean became the ABC correspondent and his Pacific career was set. Correspondents Report has devoted a program to Dorney’s work so let’s cut to the anecdotes.

Start with a Port Moresby demonstration by soldiers angry at poor pay. Troops broke branches off trees and hit parked cars as they marched on parliament. As Dorney was recording this one soldier tried to rip the recorder out of his hands. There was good audio of the scuffle as Dorney grappled to keep his machine. Then the next lot of soldiers came by and the mood turned friendly. ‘Hi, Sean!’ they called with a wave; all the contrasts of covering PNG in one morning.

We’d like to say the recognition was due to his journalism—but Dorney also played for the PNG Rugby League team and captained it in 1976. In one Moresby match, he threw a wayward pass that resulted in a try to a visiting NSW side. The PNG crowd vigorously abused Dorney until a loud voice proclaimed: ‘Leave Sean alone. He’s just helping his wontoks!’ Pauline’s father was at that game, carrying a small axe in his bilum (string bag). When Dorney got heavily tackled, Dad had to be restrained from joining the action with the axe.

The Dorney recognition factor affected Australia’s Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, when he landed at a Highlands airport to be greeted by several thousand people. Peacock’s greeting as he emerged from the plane was reasonably enthusiastic. But as the Foreign Minister walked across the tarmac, Dorney came into view at the top of the stairs, and the crowd erupted in cheers. On his return to Canberra, Peacock said one thing he’d discovered in PNG was never to travel with Sean—it was bad for the ego.

Long-time New Caledonia correspodent Helen Fraser said her memory of Dorney is being stuck between the French riot police and right-wing demonstrators —rocks were flying from one direction and tear gas from the other. In the midst of this mayhem, there was Dorney in long socks and shorts, dashing around with a microphone having the time of his life. Helen describes Dorney grabbing her by the hand and pulling her through the riot, recording as he went. Helen’s advice: If you’re ever trapped in a riot, make sure you’re with Sean— he can be very reassuring.

Dorney was expelled by PNG in 1984 as punishment for an ABC Four Corners program on the PNG–Indonesia border. The following year, I interviewed PNG’s Prime Minister, Michael Somare, and during the chat afterwards said to the Chief: ‘How could you throw out your old footy captain?’

‘Ah, it’s not Sean, it’s the bloody ABC’, Somare said.

I replied it was surprising how often I’d heard such blasphemy about my beloved broadcasting service from Australian leaders—not least Bob Hawke.

Somare broke into a broad grin and said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get Sean back. He’s one of ours.’ That’s Dorney’s achievement. Australia can claim him; and so can the South Pacific.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow.

The Oz PM’s 10 points for meeting Jokowi

Australia Indonesia PartnershipIn the next few months, Australia’s leader will have four opportunities to spend quality time with Indonesia’s new president.

Prime Minister Abbott can (will/should/must) attend Jokowi’s inauguration in Jakarta in October, following the precedent John Howard established with SBY. Then in November, the new President and the Oz PM can meet at three summits: APEC in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Burma, and the G20 in Brisbane.

Disregard the jest that the only change from summit to summit is the fancy shirts in the leaders’ photo op—although I admit to describing one APEC mountaintop moment as high diplomacy and low fashion.

In a region short on trust that is groping desperately—gasping even—for a bit of law and order those summits are gold. Read more

Using even the narrowest of bilateral Indonesia-Australia calculations, the succession of summits is a chance for a meeting of minds and a rolling dialogue. The two leaders can start anew after recent ructions. That alone vindicates all Australia’s work on creating and growing APEC, the decade of push and persuasion (and pleading) to get a seat at ASEAN’s version of Asia’s top table, and the work by the Howard and Rudd governments to see the G20 knock off the G7.

Ever eager to help, The Strategist offers a 10-point brief Tony Abbott can use going into those meetings with Jokowi. These verities loom above big policy issues like ‘stop the boats’ or ‘stop the spying’. The points draw on the two previous columns (here and here) and on decades listening to Jamie Mackie.

In particular, the brief reflects a report Jamie wrote in 2007, packing into 150 pages the essence of a lifetime. If you have to think about Australia and Indonesia, download the Mackie magic here.

Any smarts in the following brief, credit Mackie; the dumb stuff is mine.

1. Indonesia and Australia are the two most dissimilar neighbours in the world. We have little in common, except…..

2. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Democracy is a major change in what we can imagine about each other—or what Australia can understand about Indonesia.

3. The asymmetric or appendix rule: we worry about them a lot more than they worry about us. For Jakarta, Australia is like your appendix—you only think about it when it hurts.

4. Indonesia and Australia agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. Our ideal is a strong, prosperous and peaceful Indonesia that serves as our ‘strategic shield.’ We have reworked that language in the deal to end the Edward Snowden blizzard, resuming intelligence and military cooperation and creating a new code of conduct on Australian spying on Indonesia (whereby we tell the President we promise not to tap his phone).

5. You may achieve a strong personal relationship with Jokowi, Prime Minister, but national interest always beats personal chemistry. Our two nations see the world in completely different ways (see Point 1). Of course, trust and some understanding between leaders always helps, especially in a crunch moment when you want to phone the President.

6. Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia and sets the temperature for the ASEAN relationship. Sayeth Mackie: ‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

7. Tone matters—no shouting, no lectures and no domestic politics.

8. The people of these two most dissimilar countries are alike in having a robust and creative sense of humour. Coming from a ‘she’ll-be-right’ culture, an Australian has to love a country that can operate on ‘jam karet’—rubber time. Herewith an old Jakarta joke with the new leader added: Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was crazy about sex; Suharto was crazy about money; Habibie was just crazy; Gus Dur drove everybody crazy; Megawati was crazy about shopping; SBY’s problem was he never got crazy about anything; now Jokowi will have to work like crazy.

9. Vital as it is, it’s not ‘a special relationship’—the differences are too great at too many levels. But, sayeth the wise Mackie: ‘Conversely, don’t let an excessive stress on deep-seated cultural differences between us mislead us into thinking that mutual understanding of each other is impossible. It is merely hopelessly difficult at times.’

10. Liked that last sentence from the master so much, it goes into the final point. We have done important things with Indonesia and we have to do more in the future, ‘it’s merely hopelessly difficult at times.’ Loved that ‘merely’. Good luck, Prime Minister.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.