Articles by " Graeme Dobell"

DFAT swallows WasAID: aidies, tradies and pinstripes

Disaster response, IndonesiaSmoke clears. Agony and anguish ebb. The fallen depart. The integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—the greatest revolution in Australia’s foreign policy bureaucracy since 1987—is done, if not dusted.

The word the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, used in announcing the revolution in September 2013 was ‘integration’, to enable the ‘aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned’. Integrated and aligned is a polite way of saying DFAT swallowed AusAID, then spat out a lot of people.

Abbott was aligning cash and the cachet. AusAID had the money. Foreign had the power. The mismatch between money and power was getting out of hand. Shoving AusAID inside Foreign completed the demise of Canberra’s golden aid consensus, a brief bipartisan commitment to a big boost in international aid. Read more

The gold gushed from the late Howard era through the first Rudd government. The consensus was a product of boom, bible and UN millennialism (Howard’s economic boom, Rudd’s bible). From 2005 to 2010, spending doubled and the aid budget was a protected species. But the lack of political debate about that new protected species reflected the shallowness, not the depth, of the consensus.

When Julia Gillard deposed Rudd in 2010 the annual aid budget, in the forward estimates, was zooming towards $8 billion this year, with $10 billion not too far over the horizon. Today, the ‘new aid paradigm’ caps the spend at $5 billion for two financial years; after that growth will be at Australia’s inflation rate.

It ain’t small change but Oz is no longer bulking up to be an aid superpower. Gillard started to throttle back the trajectory and choke the golden consensus. Abbott completed the job. Some of the surviving aidies now refer to WasAID.

The biggest change in decades in the key institutions of Australian diplomacy prompts this first in a series of columns on DFAT. To look forward, glance back to the last revolution, the merger of the Foreign Affairs Department and Trade Department in July 1987. The differences between the ’87 merger and the ’13 integration are instructive.

When Foreign and Trade joined it was as equals, in contrast to the way AusAID was subsumed. Large parts of Trade stayed intact. Plus, Trade kept its Cabinet minister. The marriage of equals meant the old arguments continued and the warring world-views remained, but in a newly intimate setting.

The merger took the previous wars between two distinctly different departments behind one set of walls. Canberra lost sight of the entertainment provided by Trade kicking Foreign. And there was less of the old sport of the tradies wrestling Resources or subverting Treasury.

The blunt-talking tradies with a set of core goods-and-services skills joined the generalist pinstripes who do internationalism in the voice of pragmatic realism. The swearing got more colourful, perhaps more agricultural, reflecting the tradies’ Country Party heritage.

The ’87 merger was a key moment when the lawyers and politics/arts graduates of the pinstripe mainstream had to make room for a lot of economists. The econocrats made huge gains across all of Canberra in the last decades of the 20th century and Foreign was one citadel that fell quickly. These days, many Australian ambassadors spend two-thirds of their time working in the Trade and Investment space.

The ’13 integration is different. The aidies caricature is new age and NGO, with a different set of economic skills and world view. The aidies were always part of the Foreign family; now they have to move back into the family home and give up independent ways.

The staff devastation of the past year has been stark. The AusAID integration meant cutting numbers by 11–12%, casting out 500 people from the new DFAT. Some parts of AusAID were small enough to be quickly absorbed, diluted and sprinkled around DFAT. Other aid areas—Indonesia, Papua New Guinea—were too big and had too much weight and money for such treatment.

The project knowledge and the specific country-expertise AusAID brings should add heft and broaden the DFAT view. How much of that translates into core policy is the big cultural question. Based light years away from the Parliamentary triangle, across the lake in Civic, AusAID had evolved into an interesting and diverse institution. The aidies ran a sophisticated, rich NGO, with a colourful culture that still managed to be puritan about money and contracts. The higher values were multilateral, humanist and liberal.

Foreign Affairs comes from the old External Affairs Department. Aid, though, comes out of Territories—the colonial experience of running PNG. One heritage is private school, the other patrol officer.

The aidies think more deeply and constantly about the South Pacific than the pinstripes. Aidies who spend most of their career in the South Pacific are doing core business; a pinstripe concentrating on the Islands is making an unusual and limiting career choice.

For aidies who’ve survived, this does not feel like a marriage. Think being sold into service. It’s a fascinating service with broader career opportunities. But the aidies are going to have to think like pinstripes and swear like tradies.

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

Asia’s trend and temperature

Trend stories are always about the warmth of the water and the health of the frog. How close to boiling is the water, how much capacity does the frog have to respond?

Asia’s darkest trend story is the fear that the political, diplomatic and security system is not strong enough to deal with the mounting pressures. The water is getting hotter and Asia’s frogs, big and small, are having trouble deciding which way to jump.

A fine annual measure of trend and temperature is the Regional Security Outlook issued by CSCAP, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific. Set up in 1993, CSCAP is the Track Two organisation for the ASEAN Regional Forum. I’ve spent a lot of years reporting on the ARF and I’m a member of CSCAP. That makes me an old lag on two counts. Contrary to Groucho’s joke, I’m proud to be a member of the club that is CSCAP—and always impressed by the collective smarts it draws out of thinkers and players from across that extraordinarily diverse thing we try to encompass with the singular noun, ‘region’. Read more

The previous Security Outlook hit a trend point described as ‘qualified pessimism.’ This year’s Outlook judges that the Asia Pacific’s complex security tapestry ‘has been unravelling for some years and the rate of deterioration may be accelerating’. In his lead essay, Ron Huisken says the region is heading towards the ‘worst case end of the spectrum,’ with Washington and Beijing causing each other ‘more surprise, disappointment and growing mistrust than reassurance.’

The driving policy imperative for the Asia Pacific, Huisken thinks, ‘is not yet the avoidance of war’. Rather, it’s staving off the grim view that adversarial strategic competition is becoming the only game in town.

The starkly different views the Outlook draws from the US and China are more than the differing perspectives of glass-half-full or glass-half-empty. One judgment is that relations between Washington and Beijing are better than ever. Another is that we’re off to a ‘new Cold War’, where the contest is not so much ideological as ‘a serious debate over genuine alternatives’.

The US perspective is from Patrick Cronin and Alexander Sullivan of the Center for a New American Security. While lamenting political dysfunction that makes the US look weak and haphazard, they reckon 2014 was a year of improvement for American policy in Asia and engagement with China: ‘Despite elements of competition at the strategic level or on issues like cyber, the institutional US-China relationship, manifested in high-level dialogue and practical cooperation, has never been stronger than under the Obama administration.’

Never been stronger? Go to the next page to Professor Lanxin Xiang who sees

a classic security dilemma which has the potential to become a permanent state of confrontation. Taking current US-China relations as a normal state of affairs is completely self-deluding. To understand the present crisis, the US-China relationship must be recognised as entering a phase of ‘New Normal’. Call it a new Cold War.

Xiang writes that the US wants to roll back Chinese ‘aggressiveness’ while China thinks assertiveness is the most effective deterrent. Both sides keep talking past each other: ‘During the six-and-a-half years of the Obama administration, bilateral relations have sunk to their lowest point since the Nixon-Kissinger period of the 1970s.’

Xiang says that Washington is making ‘a colossal miscalculation’ in thinking that China’s leaders will quietly resume cooperation as they adjust to the rebalance and strengthened American alliances.

From Tokyo, Hitoshi Tanaka describes ‘an unparalleled challenge’ that needs new modes of thinking: ‘The future East Asia regional order must accommodate for the first time in history, both a strong Japan and China alongside the United States.’

From Seoul, a former vice Foreign Minister, Kim Sung-han, stops short of the New Cold War label but describes a polarised line-up with Russia and China on one side facing the US and Japan. He floats again South Korea’s wish that the Six Party Talks can evolve to become a Northeast Asian peace and security mechanism.

Does that all sound like the best of times or the worst of times for the Asia Pacific? The frogs can’t agree on the temperature of the water, much less the trend line.

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

To shake or axe the Defence diarchy

To shake or axe ...The federal government is to consider recommendations for the biggest changes to the top of the Defence Department in 40 years.The biggest one is to kill off the Defence diarchy—the joint rule by the Secretary of Defence and the Chief of the Australian Defence Force.

The revolution in how Defence should think and run is the product of the First Principles Review, conducted by a former Liberal Defence Minister, Robert Hill, a Labor Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, a former chief of Army, Peter Leahy, a former Australian head of BAE systems, Jim McDowell, and chaired by David Peever, previously managing director of Rio Tinto.

The Review’s on track to go to the National Security Committee of Cabinet by April. The First Principles players want to get in early to have as much impact as possible on the Defence White Paper landscape. Read more

The smoke signals about the Review from the hills behind Russell are sending messages like (puff) ‘extensive’, (puff) ‘transformative’, (puff) ‘dramatic,’ and (puff, puff, puff) ‘re-shape Defence unlike anything else since Arthur Tange’.

It was Tange in the mid-70s who crunched five departments into one and merged Army, Navy and Air Force into the entity that’s the Australian Defence Force. The First Principles Review aims to reinterpret the Tange Testament.

Given the eternal war between Defence and Finance (much less Labor and Liberal), putting Hill and Tanner to work rates as inspired ‘Team Australia’-thinking. Stir in one of the smartest Army chiefs of recent times. And just to open the door wide, tell ‘em to look at First Principles. That’s close to political carte blanche, whatever the terms of reference.

Certainly, the smoke signals say Hill and Tanner had no doubt about their right to gambol all over the place. The Liberal wet from South Australia and the hard man from the Melbourne Left found much in common as they revisited former battles, fiascos and frustrations inflicted by Defence. Still, the Hill-Tanner bipartisan stamp will be useful if the National Security Committee decides to swing the axe. The reference to the old Liberal usage of wets and dries leads to a weak joke: the diarchy has become the Canberra equivalent of the hoary jest about the weather—everybody grumbles about it but nobody does anything about it.

The list of grumblers is formidable. Not least—in public service heft and Liberal Party grunt—is the judgment of the former head of the Prime Minister’s Department and John Howard warrior, Max Moore-Wilton, who laments that no politician’s been strong enough to attack the two-headed leadership: ‘I’m no fan of the diarchy. It has diffused decision-making to a series of joint-committee type structures. It’s strange for a man who was as strong in personality as Tange to produce a structure like the diarchy.’

The Review riffs loudly on a familiar theme—the problems of accountability and responsibility. Or, more directly, fuzzy accountability and indirect responsibility. The report offers some sharp examples. While not using the language, this is the critique immortalised by Allan Hawke back in 2000, when he decried ‘a culture of learned helplessness among some Defence senior managers—both military and civilian. Their perspective is one of disempowerment.’

The First Principles Review calls in evidence a host of earlier reports on what ails Defence—including Proust (2007), Mortimer (2008), and Black (2011). The Proust management review catches the flavour with its reference to the diarchy as ‘the most unusual part of the Defence model’, with two-headed leadership causing a diffusion of commitment, compliance and consistency in reaching ‘leadership visions and goals throughout the organisation’.

You don’t have to rely on smoke signals to consider what a dramatic remaking of the Tange legacy looks like. The ex-military member of the Review, Peter Leahy, has offered a sharp version of what an axe job looks like. Indeed, the prescription he offered last March as director of Canberra University’s National Security Institute, might be exactly why he was chosen for First Principles duty.

Start with Leahy’s description of the problem of aligning accountability, responsibility and authority:

Defence has become infamous for its bureaucracy, throng of committees and matrix management methods. That results in delayed decisions, a lack of trans­parency and lines of responsibility and accountability diffused to the point of obscurity…What Defence needs now, more than ever, are realistic and achievable goals and people directly tasked and held accountable for their achievement.

His solution? Kill the diarchy as too complicated and unwieldy and give the top job to the military, in a model akin to the Australian Federal Police’s:

This is warranted, as the core role of the Department of Defence is to deliver the fighting power needed to help protect and shape key nat­ional interests and, in extremis, fight and win the nation’s battles.

If axing’s too big a call, reshape the diarchy with a firmer demarcation of responsibilities, along the lines recommended by Proust. And, Leahy argues, give the Minister a stronger instrument to run Defence:

Whatever…model is chosen, it should involve re-­establishing a statutory defence board, chaired by the minister to manage and be responsible for our national defence efforts. Governance by a statutory board would empower the government to align strategy, capability and budgeting, and assign and monitor accountability and responsibility. It would put the minister in real charge of his department and give him the means to control it. The board should comprise the minister, junior ministers, CDF as the chief operating officer (with ultimate day-to-day responsibility), secretary, three service chiefs, chief fin­ancial officer, head of the DMO and one or two representatives from general Australian industry.

The political storm blowing through Canberra might actually help the argument for a return to first principles. A big policy bang has much to offer a government desperately seeking its mojo and an experienced politician keen to assert himself in his new ministerial job at Defence.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ken Owen.

The Canberra officer project (9): the slouch-hat mystique

PROBABLY GYMPIE, QLD, 1913. GROUP PORTRAIT OF MEMBERS OF REGIMENTAL STAFF, GYMPIE LIGHT HORSE.The slouch-hat mystique has great power in Australia. We’re about to salute a full-force expression of the slouch-hat aura as the centenary of Gallipoli commemorates the ANZAC creation moment.

These columns on the Canberra officer—military leaders made to thrive in the Canberra system—need to discuss the power effects of ‘legend’ as the symbols and stories of history are a potent element of any politics.

Tony Abbott got his symbols and his history wrong when he gave an Australian knighthood to the Queen’s husband. Yet the slouch-hat mystique is a sub-story of the Prime Minister’s ‘knightmare’. Abbott got grudging acceptance and praise for knighting two former Defence Force chiefs. Sir Peter Cosgrove and Sir Angus Houston are great Australians and their standing reflects the role and reputation of the ADF they led. Abbot misunderstood. What he could give to the ADF he could not give to Prince Philip—in the eyes of the Oz polity and much of the public. Read more

Australia’s modern military is valued for what it does and what it’s been. It’s a strong brew that offers the Canberra officer a unique asset. As an example of this, read Tony Abbott on the first six months of his prime ministership, nominating the most rewarding area of the job: ‘I suppose, being a fairly traditional person, the contact with the military at every level, from the service chiefs to the squadies that I’ve been lucky enough to do PT with, has been a special highlight.’

Both sides of Australian politics talk like that. Abbott’s just as enthusiastic as his mentor, John Howard. Julia Gillard started her trek to become the 27th PM of Oz as an organiser for Socialist Forum, but lined up with the Libs in her embrace of the ADF. One expression of Gillard’s commitment was attending the funerals of 24 soldiers killed in Afghanistan—following the custom established by Howard.

Our leaders channel their people. Surveying attitudes to Defence, Charles Miller concludes that ‘the men and women of Australia’s armed forces can take pride in the fact that they have more backing from their home society than almost any other military in the developed world’. Miller cites the 2005–2008 World Values Survey showing Australians are the most fervent in the Anglosphere in embracing their military: 84.7% of Australians had ‘great’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in the ADF; US (82.8%), UK (78.6%), New Zealand (72.5) and Canada (72%).

Constantly telling your military they’re special means they come to believe they are; no bad thing for a warrior ethos, but the mystique also works on the Canberra battleground. Compared to public servants, the profession of arms gives Canberra officers several layers of extra protection from politicians. It’s a lot harder to sack a top general than a top public servant. On taking office, Abbott dismissed three departmental secretaries and announced the Treasury secretary would go the same way within a year. The executions galvanised Canberra but caused hardly a ripple in the rest of Oz.

If the new leader had done the same thing to the CDF or one of the service chiefs, he’d have faced an avalanche of questions. The mystique means the PM’s sword can knight CDFs, but it’d be dangerous to use the sword in any other way.

Defence Ministers learn the costs of biffing rather than embracing the ADF. In 2011, Labor’s Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, launched multiple inquiries into ADF culture, including the Skype sex scandal at the Defence Force Academy. Smith lamented that ‘the single biggest challenge we have in Defence is to improve, to make much better personal and institutional accountability.’

The single biggest challenge! When a politician calls for ‘accountability’ they’re attacking poor performance, but the Canberra code reads this as pressure on an institution that won’t do as it’s told. For the pollies, the mystique has problems as well as its many uses.

During Australia’s longest war in Afghanistan, four Australian Prime Ministers used the same refrain when talking about a deeply unpopular mission: yes, it’s tough, but we must support our troops. Oh, and the alliance. (For Australia, ANZAC and Alliance are two of the most important ‘A’ words.)

To see the Canberra officer effect in action, come to a Parliamentary committee room as Labor’s shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Conroy, accuses a senior military officer of being part of a ‘political cover-up’. Conroy’s attack on Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, head of Operation Sovereign Borders, was a blunder and Conroy had to apologise. Senators regularly monster public servants; it’s power expressed as sport. Uniforms, though, require more respectful treatment.

Along with all the popular rage about Conroy being rude to an officer, there was a perceptive analysis from Professor Judith Brett, author of Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class. Hear Brett, a great member of the Oz chattering classes with a deep understanding of our political culture and institutions, on this manifestation of the slouch-hat mystique:

Conroy was rude and his motives questionable, but his accusation was half right. Campbell and his fellow officers are not intentional agents in a cover-up, but there is no doubt that the government is hiding behind the military’s near-immunity from public criticism to deflect public scrutiny of Operation Sovereign Borders. It is not good for democracy to hold the military beyond criticism. It is not even good for the military, for it discourages the robust criticism needed for it to remain at its best.

Near immunity from public criticism? There’s a mystique with power.

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

ASIO (4): terrorism, transparency and traitors

The age of Jihadists coincides with the blizzard of Snowden. For Australia’s security services, that means the time of terrorism collides with the time of transparency. Completely different sets of questions mingle and clash. Stir in the China epoch of the Asian Century. Add, as always, the traditional, vital interests in the US alliance. The customary challenges of counter-espionage look equally fresh and new.

The story of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation offers some thoughts but no big answers to the mingling of these eras—same techniques, different targets, new debates. ASIO’s official historian, Professor David Horner, comments that governments and agencies have responded to the age of transparency by clamping down harder. The impact of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden has been to make governments even more paranoid and secretive.

All those elements create what Frank Moorhouse calls the ‘Dark Conundrum’—the secret methods a democracy uses to protect itself. In his book Australia Under Surveillance, Moorhouse starts with a reluctant reconciliation, an acceptance of the paradox of the secret organisation protecting the open society: Read more

By the nature of such organisations the reconciliation cannot be comfortable. Nor can the reconciliation be stable, and it is sometimes seriously disputed. The libertarian has to be in permanent critical engagement with the secret security services, using whatever means it can. As citizens we know that the effectiveness of secret organisations is patchy; we know that they are prone to chafe at civil-liberty niceties, and use dangerous justification for their breaches…My lifetime of writing and political experience has taught me that secret agencies are prone to severe politicisation, error and private agendas against the public good. As I watch secret agencies in this country and in the wider world, I have learned how treacherous they can be, how dangerous it is to train thousands of agents in the black arts of secret agencies. Combined with the technologies of surveillance and counter-surveillance, and intelligence and counterintelligence, of disinformation and trickery, it is now a more volatile mix than ever before in our history.

The Lowy Institute poll put a version of the ‘Dark Conundrum’ to Australians and got this response:

Most Australians (68%) believe that ‘the government has struck about the right balance between protecting the rights of citizens and fighting terrorism’. A small proportion say that the balance has swung too far towards fighting terrorism, with one in five (19%) agreeing that ‘the government leans too much towards fighting terrorism over protecting the civil rights of Australian citizens’. Eleven per cent say ‘the government leans too much towards protecting the rights of citizens over fighting terrorism.

For ASIO’s head for the last five years, David Irvine, those findings mean Frank Moorhouse is among the 19 per cent ‘who make all the noise’. The noise matters, though, because it points to the constant need to strike the right balance. And the Conundrum pops up in all sorts of ways. For instance, Irvine says it has an impact on ASIO’s efforts to recruit Muslim staff:

I personally believe that we do not have enough Muslim ASIO officers. People who have been brought up within the community, as opposed to being exposed to it and having to learn about it. There’s an interesting reason for that if you think about it—so many of our Muslim Australians have actually come from societies and countries where the very notion of a secret service is an anathema. It’s really quite interesting that part of my outreach to the communities is saying “hey, actually this is how we operate under the law and by the way it’s actually our job to protect you too”. So we’ve had to change our community outreach quite considerably.

To relate all of that to ASIO’s foundational story, here is the final part of the ASPI interview with David Horner, on ‘The Spy Catchers’, the first of a three-volume Official History of ASIO.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

ASIO (3): Giving up the secrets

‘The whole idea of publishing a detailed history of an intelligence organisation based on its classified files seems counterintuitive. Intelligence organisations trade in secrecy. If they reveal their sources, the sources will dry up. If they reveal their techniques their opponents will counter them. If the identities of officers are revealed they will no longer be able to operate with the freedom necessary to achieve their tasks.’

With that opening paragraph, David Horner launches his official history, using the secret files to tell the secrets of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in its fight against spies, terrorists, sabotage and subversion.

Horner writes that the book is based on ‘full and unfettered’ access to ASIO’s records. Part of the aim, he says, is to deal with myths or half-truths about ASIO that have survived for half a century:

These myths damaged the Organisation’s standing in the Australian community, and this is unfortunate because ASIO does not exist for itself. Rather, ASIO exists to serve the nation; as a government instrumentality it ultimately needs to justify its existence to the people of Australia and both sides of Parliament, and to retain their confidence.

Read more

In commissioning the three-volume history by academics from the Australian National University, ASIO is offering an accounting that seeks to slay myths, reveal some secrets and justify its existence. Launching Horner’s volume, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, congratulated both ASIO and the Oz polity:

Security agencies present a paradox for democratic governance. By their nature they are required to operate covertly. Yet parliamentary democracy depends upon accountability and transparency. Reconciling those two imperatives is by no means easy. Yet, after 65 years, the very high level of public confidence which Australians have in ASIO is the strongest testament there could be to the fact that we have, on the whole, resolved that paradox successfully. The fact that we have done so is a tribute to the maturity of our political and governmental institutions.

For a sharper insight into the tensions and tradeoffs involved in confronting that paradox, consult Gareth Evans’ diary. As Labor’s Attorney-General, Evans records this on 21 October 1984:

The main achievement of the day was to work through a dozen or so outstanding ASIO warrant applications, writing appropriately rude or sceptical things on several of them, and worrying—as usual—just how much of it all is objectively justified, and how much is part of the ongoing spook mystique. My general working principle is not to take too many chances at all with the anti-terrorism warrant applications, to be a bit more sceptical about the counterespionage, and to be quite profoundly sceptical about everything else.

ASIO has been playing this game for a long time. The struggle with a sceptical Attorney-General can be conducted with various degrees of roughness. The diary, ten days later, reports a discussion that Evans thinks would have pleased ‘spook-averse’ Labor Party colleagues:

My office day primarily involves a very prickly exchange with ASIO’s [head] Harvey Barnett, with him expressing wounded indignation about the access I have given to some junior officers with industrial relations grumbles, and me making it clear that I am not entirely besotted with the Organisation at the moment on several other fronts – not least with some recent leaks which seemed to be attributable to a combination of foot soldiers and senior ideologues unhappy with the winding back of activity on the subversion front.

An annual report at the official end and a bit of leaking in the unofficial shadows can do only so much to tell ASIO’s story. And as for the political masters…well! An official history helps with much more than myth-busting.

The third ASPI interview with David Horner looks at ASIO giving up its secrets, the moral dilemma of the vast number of files created on average Australians who were no threat to society, and the ‘massive waste of time and resources’ in surveillance of intellectuals, writers and artists.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

ASIO (2): the spooks and Oz politics

For decades, the Australian Labor Party hated the spooks with a passion. Indeed, many Australians still maintain that deep distrust of their domestic security service.

For Labor, though, the hatred of ASIO—the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—coincided with the barren years of opposition. In his official history of ASIO, David Horner writes that Labor’s approach to ASIO was poisoned:

In Australian political history, it’s unlikely that any other Commonwealth department has had to endure such concerted, vociferous and bitter criticism from the Opposition—over the two decades from 1951.

Read more

The legacy of scorn and scepticism is reflected in the words of the former Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, now ambassador to the US, who writes that ASIO

exercised its task in a democratic environment where many would challenge its relevance, its techniques and whether, in principle, it should exist. It has been impossible to view its role objectively in the public debate or see the organisation in its complete and complex history.

So, questions of relevance, technique and even whether ASIO should exist. The angst and the anger have several layers. Deepest secrecy surrounded the signals intelligence that had revealed the work of Soviet spies in Canberra in the 1940s (leading to ASIO’s creation) and that veil was not cast off until the 1990s.

The long anger-burn and many of the questions flowed from ASIO’s great public coup—‘the most important episode in ASIO’s first two decades,’ Horner writes—the defection of the Soviet diplomat and intelligence agent, Vladimir Petrov.

The Petrov Royal Commission that followed was a political disaster for the Labor Leader, H.V. Evatt, and fed the Labor belief that ASIO connived with the Menzies Government to commit political sabotage. Horner comments that Labor ran a ‘misguided campaign’ against the service, ‘based on completely false assumptions that were impossible to disprove without divulging highly sensitive intelligence sources on the Soviet Union’.

In a fine review of Horner’s book, The Canberra Times’ editor-at-large, Jack Waterford, notes that Evatt’s charges were ‘fantastic and silly’ but, stung by Labor slurs, ASIO officers ‘began to do some of the partisan things Labor critics were alleging they had always done’.

Horner’s official history shows that ASIO didn’t just gather intelligence, but conducted spoiling operations that were an ‘extravagant interpretation’ of its remit. And he comments: ‘The major consequence of the Cold War was that ASIO pursued its campaign against communists with an almost religious fervour’. Fervour saw ASIO become overzealous: ‘ASIO officers came to believe that any political movement or societal group that challenged a conservative view of society was potentially subversive’.

Here is David Horner in the second of his four ASPI interviews:

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

ASIO (1):  the intelligence jewels and the alliance

Australia set up a domestic security and spy-catching service to secure intelligence access to the US and Britain. Without the service—the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—the formal alliance with the US might not have happened. If the crown jewels of Australian defence are the intelligence-sharing arrangements with the US, then ASIO was created to protect the jewels.

Indeed, ASIO’s creation story (1948-49) is founded on the growing panic in Canberra that the US and Britain were refusing to pass confidential information to Australia. Washington and London had discovered, via signals intercepts, that secrets given to Canberra flowed to the Soviet Union. The Brits thought that if Australia didn’t act on security London would have to ‘watch our secrets pour down the drain’ in Canberra. Read more

As the flow of US and British intelligence shut down in 1948, Australia’s top Defence Committee predicted that ‘the whole basis of Australian Defence Policy will be radically weakened’ unless classified access could be restored. America’s ambassador to Canberra bluntly warned that ‘the only conditions under which the US would pass material to Australia would be when the new Security Service had been formed.’

The irony and the duality in ASIO’s birth in 1949 is that Australia created a domestic security service for a set of international reasons. ASIO was the price paid for intelligence access. ASIO’s existence was one element in the achievement of the formal alliance with the US. And ASIO’s birth was a key moment when Australia enlisted in the Cold War.

The former Labor Leader and Defence Minister, now ambassador to Washington, Kim Beazley, thinks ASIO was decisive for Australia’s alliance and alignment:

Not many Australians realise that the most important single government action aligning Australia with the West in the post-World War II Cold War power distribution was the decision by the Chifley [Labor] Government to create ASIO. It was a defensive step. It demonstrated our willingness, in an environment of intense intelligence attacks on various elements of our and our allies’ national security capabilities, to be a trustworthy player. A capable protector of our and other secrets.

All these quotes and thoughts are drawn from The Spy Catchers, the first of a three-volume Official History of ASIO by Professor David Horner. He writes:

Signals intelligence was at the heart of American and British concerns about security in Australia in 1948, and led directly to the establishment of ASIO in March, 1949. These concerns focused on two areas. First, information from decrypted Soviet cables [codenamed Venona] revealed unequivocally that Australian citizens in key government departments such as External Affairs were spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Second, as a result of this spying Britain and the US cut off Australia from access to Allied Sigint, thus damaging Australia’s standing as a reliable defence partner.

In July 1948 the Australian Naval Attaché in Washington was told Australia had ‘a security grading equivalent to that of India or Pakistan, and was in the lowest category of any foreign power having representation in the US’. Consider the turnaround: in September, 1951, the US, Australia and New Zealand signed the ANZUS treaty in San Francisco.

In the first of four interviews with Professor Horner, we started with the Venona program, the decrypted cables between Moscow and 26 cities around the world, including Canberra, New York and Washington. Venona cryptanalysts read more than 200 cables between Canberra and Moscow, revealing the names or cover names of about a dozen Australians who provided information to the Soviet embassy. Venona led to ASIO and that, in turn, played a signal part (in several senses) in the development of Australia’s alignment and alliance.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.

And the Madeleine goes to….

Madeleine AlbrightThe contestants are on stage for the annual Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

The previous column announced the minor prizes: the OOPS (I wish I hadn’t…) and the Diana for photograph or image. Now, the main award (named after Madeleine Albright for an innovation in the Secretary of State dress code by sending diplomatic messages via brooches on her lapel).

Previous winners of the Madeleine include a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight climate change and a brilliant bluff to get a peace deal. Last year’s winner was Margaret Thatcher: both for being Margaret and a specific Madeleine moment. Mrs T hosted a Downing Street dinner for the French President, arranging the seating so the French leader would see ‘on the wall opposite a full-length portrait of Lord Nelson next to a full-length portrait of the Duke of Wellington’. Read more

Now to this year’s contestants. In the power game, entourage matters. The more costly courtiers, the better. As so often, Hillary understands. She’s travelling towards the presidency but she doesn’t travel alone. What Hillary demands before she’ll turn up to take $250,000 for a speech isn’t just the jet and the presidential suite, but all the aides and the advance staffers as well. Clinton could give advice on the symbols of office, floor space and power clichés to female ministers in the British government. This wonderful piece (‘Size isn’t everything’) on research that found British female ministers are given a lot less office space than male colleagues, and sometimes even less than men who are junior to them.

The office matters. So does the hair. Margaret Thatcher had hers styled on average once every three days. During a London economic summit there was a hair-check on five consecutive days. Thatcher had a lock on the look-of-the-locks-law long before Hillary Clinton gave her ‘hair matters’ advice to Yale University students in 2001. Here’s Hillary at her dry (even blow-dry) deadpan best:

The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. This is a life lesson my family did not teach me, Wellesley and Yale Law School failed to instill: Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.

Margaret and Hillary agree: the tresses always talk but mustn’t dominate the conversation. So it’s that efforts at a winning appearance—in every sense of winning—produced two of this year’s finalists, from Indonesia and India.

In the Indonesian election, Jokowi used his checkered shirt to masterful effect. For the first time, Indonesians had a chance to elect a president who wasn’t one of the Jakarta elite. Just check the shirt:

It was in a checkered shirt that a mayor from Central Java walked the streets in his bid to become Jakarta’s governor. Now, after a year and a half as the capital’s leader, Joko Widodo has brought back the red-and-blue checks to run for the presidency. In a Muslim-majority country where voters are accustomed to seeing politicians wear conservative religious attire or formal, patterned textiles, the relaxed checkered shirt immediately caught the attention of young, fashion-forward Jakarta voters.

Narendra Modi also knows that clothes maketh the man. Modi crafted a fashion statement that serves as a political message— a rendering of the classic Indian tunic with half sleeves. After Ghandi’s dhoti, Nehru’s jacket, Indira’s sari, now the Modi Kurta.

Australia’s counter to the Kurta is Koala Diplomacy. Oz diplomats have started to formalise the use of koalas as ‘soft power diplomatic strategy, with a 600-page manual having been drawn-up by the Foreign Affairs Department and the marsupials increasingly being given to regional allies’. If the use of chocolate Caramello koalas to gain 140 votes at the UN General Assembly hadn’t already won a Madeleine, cute and cuddly Koala Diplomacy would be in with a chance of taking the biscuit.

As 2014 gasped towards its end, lingering bits of the Cold War gasped their last. Switzerland’s removing the last of the explosives that would have destroyed bridges with Germany in the event of war. Just as explosive in significance was the conclusion of the Cuba–US Cold War. James Fallows did a fine commentary on the end of ‘the single stupidest aspect of US foreign policy’. As Fallows noted, the US could recognise China but not see Cuba. Loved his old jest: ‘A standing joke when I was living in Beijing is that there was exactly one steadfast, true-believer Marxist among the billion-plus residents of China. That was the Cuban Ambassador in Beijing.’

The true Madeleine moment was the US confirming that in reaching out to Havana, ‘it helped a Cuban spy imprisoned in California artificially inseminate his wife back in Cuba’. Rate this as putting sperm into a new permanent diplomatic embrace, helping human relations in the interests of the relationship.

All those are worthy finalists, but the judges had no trouble agreeing on the obvious winner of the sixth Madeleine Award. We unfurl the clear victor—the umbrella of the Hong Kong protests. The name the Umbrella Revolution was applied in September, inspired by the use of umbrellas to defend against police tear gas.


Not the least of the achievements of the Hong Kong protests is that China’s leaders are going to have to avoid umbrellas. Standing beneath an umbrella—sheltering rendered as submitting—will be a dangerous political look. Good symbols change meanings. A Madeleine Award for the Hong Kong umbrella.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Images courtesy of Wikipedia and World Bank Photo Collection

The annual Madeleine Awards—the OOPS and the Diana prizes

Madeleine Albright

As the summer silly-season scorches across Oz, it’s time for a silly moment with a trace of serious purpose—the Madeleine Awards for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

This is the sixth annual presentation of the Madeleines, named after the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in honour of her habit of sending diplomatic messages via the brooches on her lapel. She wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea’s sunshine policy. Her favourite mistake was wearing a monkey brooch to meet Vladimir Putin, causing the Russian president to go ape.

We start with the two minor awards: the OOPS (I wish I hadn’t…..!) for blunders and bloopers, and then the prize for pictures or images, entitled the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. Read more

The OOPS has tended to go to Australian politicians because we take so much pleasure in the accomplishments of Oz leaders. And Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pushed hard to take out the OOPS for a second successive year. He won previously for a mighty effort during the 2013 election campaign. In a moment of modesty he tried to say he was not the repository of all wisdom. What emerged from his lips was: ‘No one, no matter how smart, no matter how well educated, no matter however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.’ This was OOPS-winning wisdom.

The PM fronted up for a double OOPS win by introducing the term ‘shirtfront’ to international diplomacy. In Australian Rules football a shirtfront is when a player makes a full-speed body charge at an opponent’s chest and crashes shoulder-first into their shirt. Thus, in talking about what he’d do to Russia’s president, the Oz PM announced: ‘Look, I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin. You bet you are – you bet I am.’

Putin mightn’t know much about Australian Rules, but he understands the use of gesture and gibe on the international stage. Putin’s Madeleine-worthy response while attending the G20 summit in Brisbane was to have Russian warships sailing around in international waters off Queensland. Thus, the exchange became something like: You call that a shirtfront, I call this a fleet.

Neither signal rated as a success.

Another OOPS contestant also became entangled in things naval. Australia’s Defence Minister, David Johnston, misspoke spectacularly when he gave the Senate his dim view of the government’s shipbuilding company, ASC. ASC is wholly-owned by the government and the Defence Minister serves as the shareholder. So, take it away Senator Johnston: ‘You wonder why I’m worried about ASC and what they’re delivering to the Australian taxpayer? You wonder why I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe, right?’

Senator Johnston no longer has the job. He’ll be remembered as the defence minister sunk by a canoe. Most years that would have got him the OOPs. Alas, at the last moment he has been comprehensively out-blundered by a striking international performance—an attempt at comedy that went cyber and became a contest of wills.

Step forward—to opposite sides of the stage—North Korea and Sony Pictures.

Sony started to reach for the OOPS by making a comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. North Korea responded with a massive cyber attack. Sony surrendered and canned the film; then, pushed by the US President, un-surrendered and released the movie.

Sony already has a deep understanding of the various levels of dumb it has achieved. North Korea may eventually comprehend its own dumb achievement, going cyber-psychotic over a dumb movie. A well-earned OOPS to them both.

Now to the prize for pictures or images: the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs. The title comes via Tony Blair who cited the Princess of Wales: ‘As Diana used to say, the picture is what counts.’ Many a minder has made or sunk a career on that simple bit of advice—the picture defines the story. Politicians in trouble must avoid Exit signs and stand in front of the flag.

Here is last year’s Diana winner, which trended on Weibo; masterful because so many interpretations are possible.

Last year's winner juxtaposed Winnie the Pooh and Tigger with a photo of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama.

And this year, the Chinese censors went close to winning because they got so scared of viral images of a giant yellow duck.


Definitely a worthy finalist.

Yet for the fullest understanding of the Diana Directive on the Utility and Force of Photographs, the prize this year goes for the first time, not to a photo, but to a shimmering hologram that helped shape an election. The BJP sent out India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak in 3D:

Using more than 2,500 technicians, they launched a campaign of daily hologram shows. These brought Mr Modi, in shimmering 3D, live to 1,300 locations and an estimated 7 million people over 12 days.

The candidate as crowd-pleasing hologram. Brilliant. The next US election will come in 3D.

The Diana prize goes to the shimmering Mr Modi. The next column will announce the victor of the main award: the Madeleine.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Wellesley College

Editors’ picks for 2014 ‘Canberra’s unholy trinity’

APH facade

Originally published 20 October 2014.

Here’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.

China as Number One, Japan as Normal

Bustling BeijingIn 2014, China arrived as the economic Number One and Japan arrived as a ‘normal’ security player in Asia.

China confronts the many meanings and huge character test of being the biggest. Japan has just given Shinzo Abe a fresh mandate to remake Japan’s strategic role. That means four more years to grapple with Abe’s vision of what Japan must do to be true to itself, domestically and regionally (recall Tomasi’s great line: ‘Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same’.) More than most nations, Japan is always about itself. But like the rest of Asia, Japan can’t resist being driven by China. It used to be US pressure that got Japan to shift, now it’s Chinese competition.

Asia’s headline moments in 2014 included Modi’s election in India and Jokowi’s win in Indonesia. For the trends shaping Asia’s history, though, look no further than what the year meant for China and Japan. Read more

First, China arriving as the economic Number One. After all the loud and long yabbering about what it’d mean when China passes the US as the biggest economy, the moment just zipped by. Leaving 2014 for 2015, China is the world’s biggest economy, with the US stepping back to number two. Trend moments get no bigger. True, the measure is purchasing power parity. And the moment of the tectonic shift hides deep in the calculations of the International Comparison Program of the World Bank.

The instant that China got to Number One might be about now, as you’re reading this. If you don’t want to dive into the Excel spread sheet, follow the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz on this benchmark moment for the Chinese Century. Enjoy Stiglitz’s report of how Chinese experts threatened to walk out of the World Bank technical discussions on the new numbers that showed China was on track to hit the top before the end of 2014.

Even China worries about the earthquake potential of the tectonic moment. Stiglitz writes that news of the glorious arrival was blacked out by the Great Cyberwall of China. Beijing’s fear is what this will do to a superpower ego across the Pacific: ‘China understands full well America’s psychological preoccupation with being Number One—and was deeply worried about what our reaction would be when we no longer were’.

Xi Jinping is thinking about what being Number One means, with his call for China to establish ‘big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’. Read those comments alongside the address Xi gave to the Australian Parliament with this version of the meaning of China as the biggest:

Others naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act, and they may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place.

The big guy in 2014 delivered Australia a surprisingly broad free trade agreement, crowning a ten year negotiation. And the dance continues to get South Korea and Australia to sign up to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Trade Minister, Andrew Robb (eight visits to China this year) is confident that the Abbott Government can get enough from Beijing to step beyond its ‘strategic’ concerns to join China’s Bank:

If the governance provisions that we’ve put to them [China] which only replicate really what are in place for other similar bodies such as the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank, I am 100 per cent certain that the Prime Minister will sign up.

Such a sign up would put Australia and South Korea inside China’s new institution, leaving Japan and the US outside. Ah, the many problems of tectonic moments. Canberra is finding out what it means to be a ‘strategic partner’ of China—the term agreed when the Gillard government got the deal for an annual leaders’ summit.

In the same way, Canberra is having to think what it means to be an ‘ally’ of Japan. The ally label bestowed by Tony Abbott embraces Abe’s vision of a normal Japan changing the peace constitution to do its strategic duty in Asia.

As Rod Lyon remarks, Abe and Abbot have brushed aside hesitant advisers to proclaim a ‘special relationship’, aiming for a level of strategic cooperation that no other Asian leader is likely to reach for. Abe’s new electoral mandate means the Abe-Abbott axis can go to higher places yet, transforming defence links.

Next year Australia will have to offer big thoughts on what all this means, in its fourth Defence White Paper in 15 years. The equipment decisions are agonising and excruciating; the cost and commitment boggling in dollars and duration. But it’s the swift, swirling trends that drive Australia to have four goes at writing Defence’s New Testament.

The four White Papers from 2000 to 2015 represent a clear break from the three Papers that sufficed for the preceding 24 years (1976, 1987 and 1994). The key author of the 2000 Paper, Hugh White, wrote that it

clearly acknowledged that China’s rise constituted a major change in Australia’s circumstances, and that Australia needed to take a wider view of its national interests and expand its military capabilities. The possibility of war with China now influenced major force planning decisions for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Major change, indeed. And in 2014, China as Number One and Japan as Normal shoved the change even harder.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Trey Ratcliff.